A Little Private Room

On the second walk-through of the house, Simon paused in front of a closed door upstairs and turned to the real estate agent. “What’s this door? A closet?”

It didn’t seem to lead to any of the rooms that they had already seen, and as Simon stood and tried to visualize the floorplan of the house, he had the distinct feeling there was an unvisited space in the second storey exactly where that door would lead. Not a huge space: not an entire bedroom. But bigger than a linen closet, perhaps ten feet by ten feet.

“Oh,” said the real estate agent in a casual, dismissive tone. “It’s just a little private room.”

Simon tried the knob, but it wouldn’t turn. Then he noticed a little keyhole underneath. “Do you have the key?”

“I don’t,” said the real estate agent. “But there’s nothing really in there. It’s just a little private room.”

The repetition of the phrasing struck Simon funny and he decided (as he sometimes did) that he wanted to be stubborn about it. “Well,” he said, suddenly aware of the folded offer letter in his hand as he spoke. “I’d really be more comfortable if I could see inside.”

He was forty years old now, after all. He wasn’t married and he didn’t expect to be. But he was buying the first house that he would own, and he didn’t want to be incautious about anything. He didn’t want to be forty years old with a house that he learned too late had some unpleasant surprise.

“I really don’t know if that will be possible,” said the real estate agent. “I can call the current owner and see if they have a key. But I’m showing the house to another couple this afternoon, and they are extremely interested in the property. That’s why I was so eager to get you back in here this morning.”

Simon shifted his weight from foot to foot. He didn’t know if the real estate agent really had another showing that afternoon. He didn’t know if she really didn’t have a key. He didn’t know if there was some reason she didn’t want to show him the room.

“It’s just a little room?” he asked. He couldn’t bring himself to use that word she kept repeating. He couldn’t bring himself to call it private like she did. “There’s nothing bad inside? No mold, nothing like that? Nothing that would need to be disclosed?”

“No,” laughed the real estate agent, pushing a strand of hair away from her face. “There’s nothing bad inside. It’s just a little private room with drawers and cupboards and a countertop. A lot of houses have them. You can use it for a closet if you ever find the key.”

“Well,” said Simon, as he tried to decide if he was being too stubborn. But of course, there was still the home inspection to do. He could still back out if something really bad was found. “Okay. I guess it doesn’t make much difference, if it’s just a little room.”

“That’s right,” said the real estate agent, holding out a pen so he could sign his offer letter. “Just a little private room.”

No key to the room was ever produced, and the owners were unwilling to break open the lock. They repeated again and again that the door led to a private little room, and the home inspector reported that he could detect no issues from the outside. This did not exactly quell Simon’s concerns, but it seemed he would either have to accept the mystery or walk away.

The day after the closing, Simon finally forced open the lock himself, with a series of bigger and bigger flathead screwdrivers. When at last the lock clicked open, he stood panting after his exertions and gently pushed open the door. It swung smoothly on its hinges, and inside he found exactly what the real estate agent had said he would find: a little room. A little private room with drawers and cupboards and a countertop.

Simon couldn’t exactly say what made the room seem so private, but now he realized now that the word fit wonderfully. It was laid out something like the examining room of a doctor’s office, but with more luxurious appointments, with rich red wooden panels and deep dark leather cushions, rather than bland aluminum and industrial particle board.

In the drawers and cupboards, Simon found a bewildering array of items. There were fine silk handkerchiefs and soft cotton napkins. There were glittering implements of an undeniably medical nature: tweezers and probes and mirrors clamps and vices. There were stacks of stainless steel trays and buckets. There were bottles of carefully labeled chemicals, which smelled like solvents and soaps and alcohols.

“What is this place?” asked Simon, several days later when his friend Noreen came over to see the new house. “Do you know what kind of room is this?”

“Don’t you know?” Noreen asked. “Haven’t you ever seen a body room before?”

“A what?” asked Simon, his chest and throat and face instantly coloring. “The real estate agent called it a little private room!”

Noreen only laughed. “That’s right,” she said. “A private room is the polite way to say it. But I always called it a body room. Either way, you’re lucky to have one.”

Simon wasn’t sure what to say. The phrase body room had triggered in him a sudden imaginative leap to fantastical possibilities, and he was still shaking them off. Had this been the workshop of a debonair serial killer? The playroom of a connoisseur of high-end sex workers? Was there anything you could do in a “body room” that wasn’t unsavory or shocking in some way? No wonder the door had been locked!

“Here’s what you do,” said Noreen. “You take an afternoon. Or no. This will clearly be your first time, so you’ll want to take a whole day. You take an entire day off work, and you put your phone’s ringer on mute. You put on some soothing music. You get some nice scented candles and light them. Then you really take your time.”

“Take my time?” asked Simon. “Take my time at what?”

Noreen only raised her eyebrows. “You really don’t know? You’re a forty-year-old man, and you don’t know? You have got to start taking care of yourself, Simon. It’s getting kind of sad.”

“No,” said Simon weakly. “Of course I know. But does it really take a whole day?”

“Trust me,” said Noreen. “After forty years, you’ll want to take an entire day.”

Simon immediately went online and googled what is a body room? There were over a million search results. Noreen hadn’t been kidding after all: that was really what the room was called, and apparently everyone knew what it was for except for him.

But in reading the links, Simon immediately encountered an impenetrable wall of euphemisms. Most people seemed to prefer the term private room, like the real estate agent had. But people who used that word didn’t seem to like to get into the details. They just talked about taking time for yourself and paying attention to yourself.

But at last he found a page that minimized the euphemisms. He had to change the search term and had googled instead body room step by step instructions. And suddenly there it was: a clear and straightforward explanation of all the implements and chemicals in the room with line drawing illustrations, like any technical manual.

Simon stayed up until two o’clock in the morning reading the page, going deeper and deeper into every step of the process, furrowing his brow and fighting a queasy feeling in his stomach.

Simon remembered how Noreen had told him that he needed to start taking care of himself. But didn’t he do that? He went to the doctor. He went to quite a lot of doctors, in fact. Too many doctors, he had started to feel recently. He watched what he ate most of the time, and cooked for himself regularly. He went to the gym when he wasn’t too tired after work. True, he only did the treadmill. But he was there about three or four times a week. He even had a policy of not checking his work emails after seven o’clock on weekdays and not at all on Sunday.

But the body room was different. The body room was almost frightening. Simon started to think he should have kept the door locked and never opened it at all. Was it still too late to turn it into a closet?

And yet, he was forty years old now. He was alone in his own house. He had been meaning to take a day off work anyway. So why shouldn’t he take Noreen’s advice? There was no one to tell him not to. No one would even have to know.

Simon knew that he never would have sought out a body room. He never would have had one installed. He never would have stocked the room with supplies if it hadn’t already come with them. But it was there. It was ready to use. He just had to follow the instructions.

Simon decided to take off a Friday. That way, if something unexpected happened in the body room, then he would have the weekend to pull himself back together.

He didn’t buy candles like Noreen had suggested. Instead, he bought a wax incense burner, because the website said it was safer and cleaner. He certainly didn’t want to do anything incautiously, but at the same time he wanted to do it seriously, and not in half measures. So he had bought the wax incense burner, even though it hardly seemed essential. The scent that he picked was called Autumn Storm. It was supposed to smell like a deciduous forest in the rain.

Simon had found a soft terrycloth robe in one of the cupboards in the body room, but it was too small for him. It had probably been a woman’s robe. So while he was buying the wax incense burner, he bought an identical robe two sizes bigger as well.

Again, it hardly seemed essential. It felt like buying a costume that nobody would ever see him wear. But once he had put the robe on, Simon liked the way it felt against his skin. Of course, he wouldn’t wear it long in the body room. It was mostly for afterward, after he had finished.

He had also downloaded a white noise app, and now put on a gentle rainstorm with light chorus frogs in the background. He didn’t dim the lights, since he wanted to see the work clearly for his first time, but he laid out all the various trays and tubs and filled them with the amounts of chemicals that had been specified. There were a lot of trays. He was surprised and impressed to see them all laid out.

His mouth was a bit dry. He realized he was actually nervous. But he had to start sometime, so he looked at the instructions he had printed out. And then he got to work.

First, Simon put his bare right foot on the soft leather top of the special stool in the body room. Then, following the instructions, he lifted the little toe and gently twisted clockwise until he felt it give against the pressure of his hand. With a sense of wonder, he looked down at his hand, where his little toe now lay.

There was no pain and barely any discomfort, so he moved on to the next toe. Simon detached each of his toes on his right foot, one by one, and washed them individually. By the time he had moved on to the left foot, the creepy feeling had mostly dissipated and it he noticed a free and light feeling settling like a phantom aura at the ends of his feet where his toes should have been.

The washed toes themselves looked strange and small as he lined them up in one of the stainless steel trays. There was actually a special tray, just for toes, that had ten little indentations like an ice cube tray, with one row labeled left and the other labeled right.

Simon had pre-filled each of the indentations with a very mild soap and he dipped each toe into the solution to start with. Then he gently stroked the ball of the toe, the bulge of the knuckle, and the sharp line of the nail. He trimmed and filed the nail, and abraded the dead skin away from his cuticles.

As he did so, he realized that he had never been able to see his toes like this before. For forty years, whenever he had looked at them, it had always been from the same angle. Now he was seeing sides of them that he had never thought about before.

Simon left the toes to soak in their tray for exactly five minutes before moving them to dry on one of the cotton towels, placing each one precisely in the center of the ten labeled circles printed on the towel.

Next, he did his fingers, marveling at the rows of creases that had formed along their entire length sometime over the past ten years. There were even little parallel creases in between the knuckles when his fingers were stretched out at full length, as well as the deep permanent lines on the knuckles themselves. Simon realized that he saw his hands every day, but somehow he had never noticed all these new lines forming.

Next, he detached his feet and disassembled his ankles. Dealing with the fingers and toes had felt a bit like what he imagined a spa to be, but working with his ankles was more mechanical. There were interlocking mechanisms: a ball and socket that moved wonderfully through a full range of motion, and cords that pulled or pushed in clever ways. It felt almost like he was cleaning and oiling a lock that he seized up.

The shins and calves came next, separated into two big sets of tubs. The bones soaked in a stronger solvent while the muscles lay in the same mild soap that he had used to clean his toes and fingers. By the time Simon got to his knees, he was feeling almost comfortable and caught himself humming as he shined his patellas, careful of the fragile cartilage, smoothing out the miniscule bumps with a very fine abrasive and buffing away the signs of wear and tear.

If Simon had thought that the lines on his hands were surprising, then the bumps and cracks that he encountered in the joints and bones of his legs were shocking. He was suddenly aware that his knees bent at his mostly unconscious command thousands of times a day, somehow. He admitted that they had started to grow stiffer, lately. But Simon had thought it was just an inevitable and abstract part of aging. He had not connected it, really, to his own handling of the mechanism, and he had never imagined that there was anything he could do about it. And yet, when he loosely reassembled the knee to check the fit of the pieces, Simon could feel that it moved easier and with less resistance.

After that came some very complicated and detailed work in the wrists that necessitated a lot of cross-referencing with labeled charts. Then the forearms and the elbows. Simon was fully engrossed with his work now, wondering what had taken him so long to do this. He had learned in the past few days that he could have rented a body room at any time. So why hadn’t anybody suggested that he do so years ago? Why hadn’t any of his many doctors brought it up when he was thirty, or twenty years old? Why had he waited until he was forty, and already feeling the effects of age?

By the time he removed his ribs, Simon could feel the tension pouring out of his body. Before he started on the organs, he carefully counted up the vises and clamps of various sizes to make sure he had the right ones for each artery and vein. Then working from the bottom up, Simon detached every organ in his abdomen and chest from its blood supply and other systems, placing each one in the appropriate labeled tub to allow the mild warm liquids to circulate through them. As he massaged his heart and liver and kidneys, Simon could see the liquid baths they were sitting in cloud and darken as accumulated grime diffused out.

Even after all of that, his sinuses were a revelation. Simon cleaned each one thoroughly, both inside and out, with the soft silk cloths. He spent even longer than was recommended, as huge residues of wax and mucus and dirt kept coming free. But once they were finally as pink and clean and clear as they had been on the day he had been born, he stopped and let them rest for half an hour. Then he used a set of special clippers to prune the innumerable tiny polyps growing on their surfaces, making sure not to cut too deep and to pat the miniscule drops of blood dry with alcohol swabs. Finally, he tore open a series of packets and mixed a thin layer of mucus and beneficial bacteria, which he applied with paintbrushes to every glistening nook and cranny.

Then at last, Simon was ready to open his skull. He lifted out the quivering gray mass of his brain, feeling suddenly freer and lighter than he ever had before. The instructions had said that nothing should be done to brian, except to place it in a bath of milky nutrients for at least two hours. After that, he could begin to put himself back together. But until then, he could do nothing now but relax.

Remembering Noreen, on an impulse Simon picked up his phone. He called her number and put it on speaker. Then he set it back down and lay back happily in his various liquid baths or against his gentle cotton towels.

“What’s up?” said Noreen’s voice.

“Not much,” said Simon, sleepily and dreamily. “What are you doing right now?”

“At the supermarket, looking for a good eggplant. I’m in the mood for baba ganouj.” Then there was a cry of pleasure and a moment of silence. “Got one!” Noreen said. “Why, what are you doing? You sound different somehow. Calmer…”

“I’m in the body room,” said Simon.

“Oh?” asked Noreen, a note of real curiosity in her voice. “And?”

“I took your advice,” said Simon. “I took the whole day off. I did it all.”

“You mean right now?” asked Noreen. “You’re doing it now?”

“Not doing,” said Simon. “Done. Did. Except the last of the soaking and the reassembly.”

“Do you need help? Has anything gone wrong?”

“No, no,” said Simon. He laughed lightly. “I just wanted to let you know.”

“Well,” said Noreen. “What’s it like?”

And Simon floated a moment as he turned this question over and over. He tried to think how he could possibly answer it. But he could only think about the long process of reassembly ahead, and all the imperfections and wounds that he had not been able to clean or wash away. He thought about the creaks in his knees, the twinges in his back, the aches in his head, the cracks in his joints. He thought about how they would eventually return, starting tomorrow.

“I said, what’s it like?”

Simon let out a long sigh.

“It’s a lot of different things,” said Simon.

“And do you like it?” asked Noreen.

He wouldn’t be fixed. He couldn’t be fixed. Simon knew that already, after looking so carefully at every part of his body. There was damage there that couldn’t be undone. It was the inevitable cost of living.

“I think I might stay this way,” he said at last.

“This way?” asked Noreen. “What way? You don’t mean–”

“Yes,” said Simon. He was gaining confidence now. He would certainly stay this way. It was too nice. It was so gentle and so clean. He couldn’t go back to that punishing and abusive way of living, slowly grinding himself down and wearing himself out. He had seen what the first forty years of his life had done, and he couldn’t bear to think what the next forty would do. “I think I’ll just stay exactly like this.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then Noreen said: “I’m coming over.”

“What? Why?”

“I’m coming over, Simon.”

Simon felt a sense of foreboding, though he wasn’t sure why. “You’ll ruin it. Somehow.”

“You can’t stay like that, Simon. You can’t just stay taken apart.”

“But why not? It’s too horrible to think that everything will just get dirty again, after I worked so hard to clean it. It’s too horrible to think how every part of me will get worse and older and more broken from here.”

“Simon.” Noreen’s voice was patient but firm. “This was your first time, wasn’t it?”


“Then you have to realize that you can do it again. As often as you like.”

Simon paused before he replied. He knew that, of course, but it wasn’t enough. He realized that now. Even all of this, even having the body room, even if he could possibly find the time to do it every week. It just wasn’t enough.

“That won’t fix me,” he said at last. “No matter how often I do it, I’ll still keep getting dirtier and older and more broken.”

“Yes,” agreed Noreen. “We all do.”

Simon sighed. And as he exhaled, he realized suddenly he had been holding his breath the entire time. He had not been breathing. His heart had not pumped. He had not wiggled his fingers or toes. He had not even blinked. Everything had stopped, in complete suspension.

“Noreen,” said Simon. “I think my heart stopped beating.”

“Yes,” she said. “It does that when you take it out.”

“Oh,” said Simon. “But will it start again?”

“I’m coming over,” said Noreen again.

But Simon wasn’t really listening anymore. He was trying to wiggle each of his toes in turn. He was trying to draw a new breath to replace the one that he had exhaled. But no matter what he did, his body didn’t seem to respond anymore.

Noreen was right, Simon realized. He couldn’t stay like this forever. The instructions had been very clear that nothing, not even a single toe, should be left out overnight. Everything had to be put back together the way it had been. This was, at best, a temporary reprieve.

“All right,” Simon said. “I’ll put it all back together.”

“I’m still coming over. I’m on my way.”

“No,” said Simon. “I can do it myself. Don’t you trust me? I promise I’ll be in one piece again before bedtime.”

“It’s not that,” said Noreen. “I want to hear about it. Is that all right?”

“Yes,” said Simon. “It’s all right. I want to talk about it too.”

And no sooner had he finished speaking then his stomach gurgled loudly from inside its vat, just as his heart beat once, slowly, and his lungs drew a single breath.

“But you’d better make that baba ganouj first. I think I’m going to be deliciously hungry by the time you get here.”

M. Bennardo lives in Kent, Ohio. He did not buy the house the with the mystery area the seller refused to reveal, but he hopes whoever did found something nice inside. His website is http://www.mbennardo.com

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