Someone was always ringing the doorbell these days. Usually on Tuesdays Carl could barely go fifteen minutes without the resonant tones of the bell going off, and he would hasten to the door to let another guest in. Mondays were often busy, too. And sometimes the place could get crowded on Friday and Saturday nights, especially in the springtime, when the weather improved and the leaves started budding vibrant green again.
Carl had known by now to have pastries prepared all day for the influx of visitors he expected on any given day. They were always hungry and usually took a cookie or two with a guilty look on their faces, muttering that someone else would probably need the cookies more than they would. But Carl always shrugged and told them it was fine. They nibbled at their snacks nervously, eyeing the other guests with suspicion and shame.
On this particular Tuesday Carl was especially tired. There was a strange lull in visitors that afternoon, and more than an hour passed without the doorbell ringing once. Carl lounged on the couch in the living room, the front door of the villa 15 feet diagonal from where he sat now. In the break in guests arriving, Carl made the mistake of blinking his eyes for longer than three seconds, and before he knew it he awoke again to the suddenly harsh tones of the doorbell. He swung his feet to the floor with a thump and stood with a creak. The doorbell rang again, twice in a row; Carl sensed the urgency of the tones beyond the door.
“Just a minute!” Carl shouted hoarsely, then cleared his throat. “Hold on! Don’t leave!” With soft stockinged feet he paced quickly to the entryway and swung the door open, fearing that his visitor was too anxious and had already left. When his eyes focused Carl looked straight into the eyes of a sweaty middle-aged man with a worn hat ring around his forehead; the hat itself he wrung nervously through his fingers, bending the brim back and forth. His eyes changed to an expression of relief when he saw Carl open the door.
“Come in,” Carl said, ushering the man into the villa and closing the door behind him — before Carl turned around to greet his visitor he poked his head out the door for any other stragglers. Seeing none, he closed the door quietly and followed the man into the living room where the cookies and tea were waiting.
Neither man spoke for several minutes, the silence hanging pregnantly in the air. Whenever Carl had guests over he knew it could take some time for them to grow used to the environment and be comfortable there, depending on how long they were staying. This man hadn’t made eye contact with Carl once after entering the villa, but Carl didn’t mind. He, too, munched at cookies — they were his primary sustenance, it seemed — and read yesterday’s newspaper casually.
After ten minutes, the man spoke, still looking at the floor. “May I use the restroom?”
Carl peered over his newspaper. “Of course. Go down that hallway by the front door and it’ll be the first door on the right.” He watched the man rise and plod heavily in the direction in which Carl had pointed. He was out of eyesight within a few steps.
A minute passed in silence, only the faint crinkling of Carl’s newspaper reaching his ears, when a surge of terror suddenly raced through Carl, and he jumped to his feet and strode down the hall. “Sir?” he called, urgency in his voice. The bathroom door was closed — but Carl couldn’t remember if he had left it closed after the last time he was in there. “Sir?” he repeated, leaning his ear up against the door.
An agonizing silence of two or three seconds, and then— “Yes?”
Carl closed his eyes in relief. “Oh, I’m just checking. I thought you might have— Well, nevermind.”
There was no answer on the other side of the door. Carl lingered for a few seconds longer and returned to the living room. Within another two minutes the doorbell rang again. Carl was used to this. The pace of his afternoons, especially Tuesday afternoons, was usually considerably faster than it was today. Carl didn’t realize how quiet the villa was until the man in the bathroom had been gone for a few minutes and the clock on the wall ticked like echoes on a canyon floor. The doorbell broke that silence, but Carl didn’t know whether to be relieved or anxious.
The face behind the glass panes of the door this time was a younger-looking woman with dark brown hair that fell in front of her eyes when she looked down at the doormat. When the door opened, she jumped and glanced up at Carl? “Um,” she said, “is this—”
Carl reached for her shoulder and guided her over the threshold. She flinched slightly but allowed him to touch her. “Thank you,” she said, her voice icy and distant.
Just as Carl was leading her to the couch, the man emerged from the bathroom and suddenly appeared on the periphery of the room. Carl gestured for him to join them too.
After they had both recovered their wits and were able to partake in the food that sat on the table, the visitors began to loosen up. The man introduced himself as Kevin, a 46-year-old car salesman; the woman as Rita, a 29-year-old physical therapist. Both had found their way to the villa nearly on accident, after getting hopelessly lost on the path outside; they had considered turning back but had somehow come across a sign for the villa.
As the two visitors relaxed and conversed more freely, Carl watched quietly and sipped on his own steaming tea. He wanted to step in and ask a few questions but he knew the conversation would shift in time — as it always did. For now he was content to merely observe. He knew, too, the doorbell would ring again at any point.
And it did — again and again and again that afternoon. The usual Tuesday pace had returned, and within an hour Carl had a house full of visitors milling around sadly, streaming up and down the stairs, shuffling through the halls, pausing in front of the door. Carl watched them all closely, periodically interrupting to ask if they needed anything. Always getting a sad head shake in reply.
It was Rita who brought the focus back to the room with the pastries and tea. She and Kevin had been talking on their own, becoming alternating between heated and morose exchanges; and as the guests in the villa increased, so too did their interest in the conversation. Carl had forayed upstairs briefly to restock the toilet paper in the downstairs bathroom and was ambling back to the kitchen when an angry outburst from Rita caught his ear.
“But I didn’t ask to be born,” she snapped. Carl turned toward the living room. Rita had shifted to the edge of the sofa and was gesturing wildly toward a crowd of curious eavesdroppers, most of whom were standing above her, their hips at the level of her face. “I shouldn’t have been born. My parents didn’t want me. My dad was an alcoholic. That’s all I knew as a kid. And as an adult. I haven’t even talked to them in seven years, not since I graduated from college.”
“But you’re not their little kid anymore,” said a woman named Maggie standing on Rita’s left side. “You can’t blame them for who you are now, or for being here now.”
“Why not? They fucked me up badly enough.”
Maggie shrugged. “I’m the last person to tell you it gets better.” She pursed her lips into a silent straight line.
“It’s not going to—fuck, none of you guys are getting this!” Rita stood up violently, knocking a cup of tea to the floor with a crash. Carl didn’t move a step; he would clean it later, if he had time. There was no way a little spilled tea was going to interrupt the conversation that was going now. Discussions like this were rare in the villa; most of the time people came and went without a word to Carl, let alone each other.
As Rita fumed on one end of the room, the other visitors had averted their eyes and stared awkwardly down at their teacups, or their shoes, or their knuckles. But one adolescent in the opposite corner stared at Rita directly with wide, amazed eyes. She glanced at him once and glared back at the other room’s inhabitants. But the youth’s round eyes seared into her soul from there.
She snapped her head toward him. “What’re you looking at, kid? You think this is funny?”
The boy shook his head firmly, his dreadlocks falling in front of his shoulders. “No, ma’am.”
“No, come over here. You look like you have something to say.” Rita rushed over to the boy, pulled him abruptly to his feet and dragged him to her spot on the couch. “What’s your name, kid?”
The boy didn’t respond. He had clasped his hands now and was looking down at his fingernails. “I said, what’s your name?” Rita’s voice had become shrill.
“Deangelo,” the boy said quickly. Carl, still standing in the doorway to the kitchen, straightened suddenly and cocked his head. Deangelo…. I know that name.
“Deangelo? How old are you, Deangelo?”
“Sixteen. Ha. I suppose you know all about what we grown-ups are talking about over here.”
“Rita, calm down. Leave him alone—” Maggie reached out a hand toward the boy.
“No, come on. If Deangelo wants to say something, let him say something. You got something to say?”
“Good. Then stop staring at me. What are you even doing here anyway?”
Deangelo knew Rita’s remark was a rhetorical question and remained silent. He could feel a hundred eyes on him in this moment, and his skin grew hot as the silence thickened. Without thinking, he flicked his gaze upward for a fraction of a second, and happened to lock eyes with Carl, who was still standing in the doorway watching him. Deangelo felt immediate shame and dropped his eyes just as quickly.
“Look, let’s all just calm down,” Kevin began, speaking up for the first time in what felt like hours. But Rita’s continued wrath interrupted him. “Don’t fucking tell me to calm down! I didn’t come here to be coddled!” she snapped.
Carl could stay silent no longer. “Then what did you come here for?” The debate quieted when the visitors realized the host had joined the conversation from the kitchen doorway.
“I—” Rita’s mouth widened but no words came out.
“Why did any of you come here?” Carl stepped forward and looked around at all his guests. No one replied. “I can tell you why I’m here.” The audience seemed to lurch forward at this impending admission; of the entire group, he was the only one who seemed genuinely happy — or, if not happy, comfortable.
“I’m stuck,” Carl said simply. “I’ve been here for too long; I can’t remember how long. Every day something slips away even more and I can’t remember what it was like before I came here. But I still can’t decide if I want to leave. I’m stuck,” he repeated. A silence fell.
“I keep thinking I hear my family’s voices in my head.” Carl scrunched his eyes shut and rubbed his thumb and forefinger on his forehead, as if to illustrate his point. “I can never hear what they’re saying, but I know they’re trying to talk to me. My wife, my daughters, sometimes the doctors. They’re always calling for me to come back.
“But you know what the strangest thing is? I don’t want to listen to them anymore—but I don’t not want to either.” Carl sighed. “It doesn’t make any sense. But don’t you see? That’s what all this is: a contradiction. Life, death: it’s all what you make of it.”
“What do you make of it?” Kevin spoke up.
“What do I make of it?” Carl repeated. “Nothing, I guess. Not anymore. It’s been so long. I don’t feel anything anymore. I only want to be here, in this place, by the sea. I don’t want to decide.”
A silence fell for a few minutes. Carl let out a sigh. He was suddenly aware of how tired he was.
“Don’t you feel guilty?” Maggie said quietly?
“What would he have to be guilty for?” Rita’s voice cut sharply through the gentleness that Carl had suddenly restored in the room. “He didn’t ask to be born. No one in this room wanted to be born,” she repeated with conviction. “I was forced out of a vagina. If I’d have known things were going to be like this, I would have stayed in there.” She waved her hand in the air dismissively
A man standing sheepishly across from Rita spoke up. “I think what Carl is saying is that he doesn’t know what to do, and that’s confusing.”
Carl frowned. “Well, yes, but—”
“But why would any of us feel guilty? Isn’t it our choice?”
“It is, but….” Maggie’s eyes widened and adopted a soft look to them. “I don’t know. You just think about all of these conflicting things, and you don’t know where you stand. And you realize how complicated everything and that everyone wants something different—and you don’t even know what you want. You just don’t want to be in pain anymore.” She paused and shrugged. “That’s all you can think about. You don’t want to feel ashamed of it. You just do.”
“Well, I don’t,” Rita countered.
“But you do.”
Rita looked aghast that someone would refute her point. “What?” she said icily. Everyone else snapped their heads to see who had challenged Rita, and were surprised that Deangelo was now on his feet. He had seemed so demure earlier, but here he was standing up to Rita.
Deangelo cleared his throat. “You do feel shame. That’s why you’re here.” He paused, but Rita didn’t respond. “If you didn’t feel shame, you wouldn’t have stopped here; you wouldn’t have come in the front door.”
Carl looked at the boy, simultaneously saddened and impressed. He was prepared to step in again if necessary, but he remembered enough about Deangelo that he knew he wouldn’t need to.
“Everyone here feels shame. We’re all here because we couldn’t decide what to do or where to go; we didn’t want to make that decision, because no matter what we decided, someone would be let down. So we hoped someone else would make it for us.”
“You don’t know anything about me, kid.” Carl was half impressed: no matter what anyone said, Rita refused to back down.
“Yeah,” Deangelo conceded. “I don’t know your story. But I do know that you’re here. And I’m here. We’re all here, and we’re all going through the same boat. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, Rita—” he said her name with disdain “—but we’ve been sitting here arguing for quite a while, and I don’t think anyone’s left,” he said, craning his neck to look around the room.
“I just think it’s interesting. We all came in here, and we’re all still here. Even you.”
“Well,” Rita sputtered, “what does that have to do with anything? Wait, no,” she flailed her arms again wildly. “I don’t have to listen to you. You don’t know anything.”
Without a further word Deangelo took a deep breath and began unbuttoning the top of his shirt; after three loosened buttons, he pulled the collar to the left side of his shoulder where it hung off his body. He put his hand around his dreadlocks and swept them to the side, turning his neck toward Rita and the rest of the congregated visitors. Barely visible in his dark skin was a line of pink furrows etched into Deangelo’s neck, running from a few inches below his ear to underneath his chin.
“Two years ago,” he said, confirming what all the gawkers thought. “I wanted to die. I tried to; I was close. They said if the hanging didn’t kill me, the cut of the rope would. But then I came here, and Carl—” he gestured toward the unassuming man standing a few paces away from him, whose eyes were now glittered with tears “—Carl talked me out of it.”
The visitors had backed away slightly, looking ashamed. Even Rita, whose furor had been the center of attention all afternoon, had backed out of the center of the circle. All had averted their eyes again to anything interesting they desperately searched for on the floor; only Carl looked at Deangelo. The only sound was a sea of sniffling and shuffling feet.
Finally Kevin cleared his throat. “But then…. Why are you here again?”
Deangelo shrugged. “I tried living again, but it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t do it.”
Carl wanted to say something—no, he needed to. But now, looking at Deangelo, he could muster no words.
Deangelo turned to Carl instead. “I made the wrong choice before. I’m sorry. I know that now, listening to all of you. I don’t want it to be like this. I don’t want to fight anyone anymore. I don’t want to fight myself. I can’t do it anymore. I want to leave.”
The boy looked around the room at everyone once more, and then, without a word, he turned and walked to the front door. His hand turned the doorknob firmly, and he wrenched the door open again confidently. A sudden twitch in his neck told Carl the boy wanted to turn around again, he wanted to see someone following him, he wanted to hear someone calling for him—but nothing happened. Without looking back, Deangelo stepped outside the door onto the porch, took two steps onto the ground, and took off running toward the sea.
The door remained open. Carl and his visitors watched the boy run down the path and turn left, growing smaller and smaller in their vision the farther he went toward the beach. Finally, the dot had all but disappeared into the waning sunlight. Carl stood a moment longer gazing outside; with the door open, he could hear the crash of the waves more powerfully than he had heard them all day.
He turned around to face a crowd of people in his living room all standing up and lumbering slowly toward him. No one said a word. In a single file line, each of them extended their hands; Carl offered his own in surprise, choking back tears.
One by one the guests paraded out the door, but Carl knew better than to hold his breath about which direction they would go; he knew better than to hope. The visitors had come to the villa for a reason, and now it was time to turn left on the path. Left, left, left, went all the guests; right, went one sobbing man. Without looking up, Carl shook hand after hand, until someone stopped in front of him. When he looked to see whose hand he was grasping, Carl was moved to see Rita in tears, grasping his hand tightly with her own two. “Thank you,” she whispered. Just as quickly as she approached, she was ushered down the line out the door.
Carl’s nerve was gone. He stood there slack-jawed and teary-eyed while he watched Rita walk away. He felt his heart flip over suddenly in his chest when she approached the fork in the path, appearing to choose which way to go. Then, like the others before her, she turned left, too.
By the end of the evening the villa was empty again, with only Carl puttering around to clean up the dishes from that day’s affair. It was a daily routine, but today Carl went through the motions without registering anything he did. He stacked the plates in one hand and gathered the teacups by their handles in the other, but he held everything so carelessly that the crumbs from the plates and the drops from the teacups continued to fall down onto the floor. He piled up the dishes in the sink and stood for a moment, staring down at them.
What am I doing?
With a sudden surge of energy, Carl pushed himself away from the counter and into the laundry room. The key to the villa always hung on a hook against the wall, and today Carl grabbed the keychain without thinking and strode toward the door. With the same gumption as Deangelo, he stepped over the threshold onto the porch, and closed the door behind him with a satisfying click. The keys jingled in his hand.
Carl walked off the porch slowly, knowing his destiny could lie in only one direction. He walked. Overhead somewhere, the tone of a flatlined electrocardiogram grew louder and louder.