I wrote the following story around 2000-2001, which feels like an eternity ago now! It’s a story couched in metaphor, the basement being the most obvious one, but what I have come to enjoy about the allegory is that I have discovered it’s somewhat of a Rorschach test. The Basement seems to symbolize something different to each person who reads it, and the story seems to have different facets of meaning that I myself never considered. It does, nonetheless, have several layers of meaning for me as well, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for the reader by describing the actual events that inspired it. Please feel free to share your own interpretations if you care to.
Bonnie and Mitch live in a crummy little basement apartment in a nicer part of town. They paid the building off years ago, and they could rent the basement out and live in one of the upper-level apartments if they so chose. But they prefer the basement, and their habits prefer the few extra bucks the upper-level apartments bring in.
“It’s dark in here,” Bonnie thought, but she didn’t dare raise a shade, and Mitch didn’t notice as she wrapped yet a third cardigan around her shoulders.
Mitch was in his usual place in front of the television with the volume down low. He stared at it with his tumbler of gin in hand, but he didn’t see it. He didn’t even know what it was he was looking at. The sound was as incidental—and tuned out—as the mufflers rolling down the street.
He sat planted in the dip of the couch and tried to remember, unsure of what to remember. If he could only grab onto one memory, maybe he’d know something. Maybe he was trying to remember what certainty felt like.
Bonnie remembered too much, and that’s why she rocked in her chair in the corner. Back and forth like the events of her life bounced in her head, like her ambivalence and her prayer of snapping to.
They were excited about their crummy little basement apartment when they first moved in, before it was crummy. A struggling new couple happy enough to call something their own, they used to stay awake and talk all night. Bonnie had made a cover for their thrift-store couch, and they would sit on it and drink and philosophize, speak of their experiences and lessons and what they’ve learned and what they now know. And they had the basement apartment to thank for all that. It gave them their long-sought after space and privacy, like a homey cave that went unnoticed by the hustle and bustle of the small city’s Second Street. There in mid-town, they could look out their windows at the poor fools who scurried back and forth to work every day, checking their grocery lists as they sped down the sidewalk at dinner time. But there, in the basement, Bonnie and Mitch knew they had it figured out. They stumbled onto a secret that allowed them to cheat the nine-to-five grind: they scraped and they worked harder than anyone else still stuck in the life, until they had enough to buy a building that would pay for itself. They lived in the basement apartment, supported by the tenants upstairs, and with rent taken care of, they could live off the few bucks brought in every week with odd jobs and creative endeavors. Their time was theirs, and from their apartment under the sidewalk, they could look out onto the world and laugh at the fools who never stumbled onto the secret.
Bonnie sat and remembered those days, and each monumental moment that came to mind was book marked by the creeks of the rocking chair. She remembered how when she and Mitch used to talk, they were in silent agreement that they were the only two intelligent people in the world, and therefore, together, the most brilliant. They were the only two that knew all the little secrets of life.
“My God, it’s all so clear now!” Bonnie said to Mitch on their first night together in the basement. Drunk on cheap champagne, they expounded epiphanies that were only then visible, there in the basement. Their realizations were enhanced as they finished each other’s sentences in the rapture of synchronized revelations.
“The answer has been there—all this time—right in front of my face!” Bonnie rattled on in orgasmic delight. “It’s so simple!” She said and burst out into laughter. “I understand now—I finally see!” and she wanted to invite her mother and her lonely brother and her sad friends into the basement so they, too, could finally see.
“I told you,” Mitch replied, and by now he too, was laughing. He found the building, but it wasn’t until the realtor showed him the basement—which in its simplicity seemed to radiate something magical—that he knew Bonnie would love it as much as he did. He sat on the couch and studied her as she searched for something jazzy on the radio. Bonnie sat on the floor and leaned back with her eyes closed. Her black hair shined in the soft light, and for all its blackness, Mitch thought her long main was the brightest thing he had ever seen.
Bonnie still tries to remember how she felt that first night in the basement—how beautiful every sound was as it moved through her ears to her mind—how she didn’t listen to Billie Holiday but felt her voice and the music vibrate throughout her body. She still tries to remember how illuminated and connected everything looked, how bright colors seemed to her unflinching eyes, and how soft every object felt. She still tries to remember how she felt music and heard objects and saw thoughts—how Mitch’s touch felt like a liquid orgasm moving across her skin.
Mitch doesn’t even think to try to remember that first night anymore, and he wouldn’t be able to if he did. He vaguely remembers that they used to talk, but he’s not sure what about. How their days went? What Bonnie’s mother had to say when she called on the phone? Is that what they used to talk about? They don’t bother with the minutia of life anymore. Now the two sit in silence, in an unspoken agreement that there’s nothing worth talking about. Mitch doesn’t imagine there ever was.
Now Bonnie sits in her chair and stares at the smoke-stained shade and debates getting up to raise it, but she can’t move. She longs for sunlight more now then she ever has in her life, but she doesn’t dare invite the light to come crashing in. She knows what will happen if she raises that shade: the light will reflect off the coffee table and reveal months of dust; it will bounce off the wallpaper and uncover the puddles of tar; it will roll over the carpet and there Bonnie will see the vomit and whiskey and mud that’s made itself comfortable on her floor. The piles of paperwork that now hide unintrusively in the corners like a quiet child will scream at her and berate her pathetic failures if she lets the light touch them.
She craves the sunlight with an aching that runs deeper than cold sweats on a dry night, but it’s too late. Letting in the light that teases her as it trickles on the edge of the shade will mean having to look at everything she let go. As the evidence of her mistakes threaten her from their respectful place in the shadows, she looks at the yellow shade and knows, she isn’t strong enough to lift it and look at what she has become in the basement.
“Bonnie …” Mitch’s voice was low and groggy. “Bonnie, we’re out of gin. We have to go to the store.”
“You go Mitch. You go.” A tear rolled down Bonnie’s cheek. There was the rustle of movement somewhere behind her, and then distantly, the door closed. Bonnie moved to a spot on the floor, still staring at that shade. It was a screen where she saw the silhouette of legs and feet flickering behind it. Slowly, she began to question everything she thought she knew. Every belief she held dear began to slip away from her, evaporating like a mirage in the dessert. Every idea she had that made her feel special, in control, crumbled as she tried to grasp it, and suddenly, she realized she didn’t know anything. Everything was a lie. She was a lie. Something much stronger than what she had become still existed beneath the shell of who she thought she was, and it was screaming inside her.
In that moment, deep beneath all her anxiety and fear, something came up and passed over her. It was a calm. An unexpected, uninvited calm that told her nothing could be worse than that spot on the floor where she sat. Bonnie surrendered her thoughts, and the calm moved her toward the window. But that’s as far as it would take her. She stood, shaky, in front of the shade. She felt light on her face. The calm would not raise the shade. The decision would have to be her own.
She thought of her mother and everything she had wanted for Bonnie. She thought of how her mother stayed, and how with each year that passed, the chances of her mother choosing a new life for herself became smaller and smaller. Bonnie and Mitch never had children. If they had, Bonnie thought there would be hope for the legacy of all the women who came before her. But standing in front of the window, Bonnie realized her mother’s legacy lead to only one point in the universe. As of that moment, the legacy ended with Bonnie.
“This can’t be where it dies,” Bonnie thought out loud. “Not here. Not in this basement.”
Bonnie lifted a trembling hand and pulled down on the shade. She held it, just for a second, and then let it go. It whirled up and made a violent noise, snapping against the window. The light was so bright, Bonnie had to close her eyes for a minute. Though she was terrified, she turned and looked defiantly at what had been hiding in the shadows. It was nothing. It wasn’t her life, pilled in the corners, scattered across the floor. She didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t hers. It was just some mess, and as she walked away from it, she remembered what hope felt like.