The Earth Room
An excerpt from a new story by Dana Diehl, published in the first Splice anthology
There’s an apartment in the city that’s filled, wall to wall, with three feet of level earth. The first time J. takes me home with him, he teaches me to crawl through the space: slow and patient, fingers outstretched. “So you don’t sink through,” he explains. “Pretend you’re crossing ice.”
In what must have once been a bedroom, we lie on our backs with only the edges of our hands touching. There are no paintings on the walls. No photographs or mirrors. No doors. There’s no furniture, not even a bed. Only earth. It’s very soft and very, very quiet. The smell reminds me of freshly dug holes, of upturned stones, of dripping caves. It reminds me of childhood summers spent wrestling through the woods behind my house. Peering into groundhog holes, looking for salamanders under rotting leaves. The smell overwhelms me with a nostalgia I hadn’t even realized I harbored.
“How long has this been here?” I ask J.
He tells me it was just a habit at first. On walks in the park, he’d fill his pockets with handfuls of peat moss or dirt from planters and shake them empty when he arrived home. He liked getting out of bed and feeling dirt under his bare feet. He liked the way it absorbed the roar of the city. He wanted more. He started ordering bags of planting soil. Hundreds of pounds of it, hundreds of dollars, delivered to his apartment weekly. When his neighbors questioned him, he told them he was cultivating an indoor garden. Heirloom tomato plants. Butterfly palms to clear toxins from the air.
“One time,” he said, “I forgot to pay my bills for a month and didn’t even notice when my electricity was shut off. I rarely cooked at home anyway, and I stopped turning on the lights long ago.” All day, he said, the sun casts a moving square of light through his curtainless windows onto the dirt. At night, the streetlights brighten the rooms.
I curl my hands into claws and dig in my fingers, almost up to my wrists. I imagine how later I’ll have to pick the dirt out from under my nails, how I’ll carry a bit of this place across the city with me. I ask, “How much is there?”
J. thinks for a moment. “I did the math once. It’s somewhere north of a hundred tons. You know what else weighs that much? A radio tower. A space shuttle. A railroad locomotive engine.”
He props himself up on his elbow, leans over to kiss me. As we kiss, I feel myself sinking into the soil a little. The kiss deepens. The earth pulls me closer.
When the kiss ends, we both laugh and look away a little shyly. It’s been a long time since a man has been shy with me. I like it.
“I guess I should go,” I say. I pause to see if he’ll stop me, but he doesn’t. I sit up and brush myself off. When I glance back over my shoulder, I notice the impression I made in the earth. It disturbs me a little to see this hollow echo of my body. I smooth it over with my hands.
“Goodnight,” I say.
In the darkness, he’s quiet.
I moved to the city a year ago because of a boyfriend I thought I’d marry. I found a job. I found a sushi place that was better than any I’d had in my last home. I ate there often enough for the hostess to automatically bring me a cup of hot sake when I sat down, but not so often that she knew me by name. And then the boyfriend I thought I’d marry didn’t want to be a boyfriend anymore. I had to find a new apartment to live in, in a new part of the city. A new sushi restaurant. A new route to work, along unfamiliar sidewalks lined with unfamiliar vendors.
During this time, I felt a hollow open up inside me. That hollow was home to something dark and squirming, something that was both me and not me. I did everything I could to ignore it. When I wasn’t working, I’d take the subway to the park and walk the trails until my lungs burned. Or I’d sit on a bench and watch the street performers. My favorite was a man who’d use a hula hoop to make gigantic bubbles that would drift over the sidewalk like blind whales before getting caught in the branches of trees and bursting. It was here, at the park, that I met the man with the apartment full of earth. After a few weeks of haunting the trails and benches I started noticing him. He also seemed to spend a lot of time on a bench doing nothing at all. Another week passed, and he started to notice me, too. We began to sit on the same bench.
He told me he went by J., like an abbreviation. He was one of those men who looked both young and old at the same time. I could tell he was older than me, though I wasn’t sure if it was only by a couple of years or over a decade. He often wore gray corduroys and a black peacoat. He had nice hands with delicate knuckles. I asked him to walk with me. As we strolled through the park, our shoulders raised against the cold, I felt the hollow inside myself shrink. I started to feel again like a version of myself I recognized.
Read ‘The Earth Room’ in full in the first Splice anthology, which is available to order now.