Are you uncomfortable? Forgive me, if I am too bold; but you look as if you are missing an olive in your martini, or a caviar egg on your cracker. You are my guest, and that simply will not do. Come, follow me into one of my backrooms. I confess that they are not decorated to the nines like my living room. They will not stain your lungs with the smell of vanquished cigars, as will happen if you remain too long in my den. There will be no cooks and waiters at your beck and call, as you will find in the kitchen. Even the proverbial French maid, adorned in her laced apron and ruffled stockings, will be a no show. I keep her in the master bedroom closet during parties, so that my guests do not get the wrong idea. She assures me that she likes it in there. The rope tied around her wrists digs into her Parisian skin, admittedly; but she agrees with me that that is a small price to pay for the fact that we have to liberate them from the Germans every half century or so. Moreover, I sometimes wonder if she does not actually enjoy sitting in the closet for hours on end. After all, we all know that that is where the boogeyman hangs his hat; and while he may scare the rest of us, he has been known now and then to teach his mademoiselles the sordid little arts of the Madam.
Ah, I seem to have wandered, as I am inclined to do when I indulge a cocktail or two. Suffice to say that you will not find anything memorable in the backroom. You will find a bed, a dresser, a candle flickering sickly yellow light into the darkness, perhaps even a life sized, naked, albino mannequin standing at attention in the corner. Not all of the backrooms include a mannequin, so I cannot say for sure that yours will. If indeed you happen to see a mannequin staring back at you with his blank, white eyes, do not be alarmed. He may seem to be undressing you with his eyes, but I may assure you that nothing of the sort happens in my home. My mannequins are gentlemen, nude, but with coiffed hair, perhaps as Adam would have looked if he had been a distinguished banker or attorney in Eden, instead of an outcast clothed in a fig leaf. Anyway, regardless of the mannequin, focus on why you are spending some time in one of my backrooms. You look like shit, if I may speak like a groundling for a moment; and you need to relax. You should do as you would in your bedroom: Turn off your lights (in this case, blow out the candlelight), pull down your blinds, take off your clothes…
What is wrong? Are you afraid to take off your clothes? Please, understand that when I made the suggestion I never intended to be with you at the time. I respect your privacy, as much as I would want you to respect mine. Moreover, unlike what you might see in a sexploitation film on ‘Skin-a-max’ after midnight, no one is going to watch you through the keyhole, or the closet door louvers, or the window blinds.
Well, okay, truth be told, my vintage window blinds are not one hundred percent reliable. They have warped from decades of direct expose to the sun. They slide apart, slowly, indeed imperceptibly, when we think we have them as tightly bound together as possible. If a would be Peeping Tom is patient enough, then he will be able to peep through the thin space in between two blinds, when they pop apart from one another. Interestingly, this always seems to happen in the dead of night, when we are naked in bed, fast asleep, and stumbling through a nightmare. The squinty eyes stare at us. They are blank, motionless, piercing. Our subconscious mind senses them, but we are much too absorbed in our nightmare to awaken in time to stare back at the bastard. By the time we stagger out of bed, the eyes are long gone. We shudder, as we sit on the pot, for deep down we sense vaguely that we have been violated. The moment passes, and we go about our daily lives, until the night the stalker decides to do more than watch.
Now, having said as such, I think you would agree that the likelihood of a stalker outside the window is pretty small. You fear is disproportionate to the risk; and yet you are frightened anyway, because you know, deep down, just how horrible it is to be seen naked. Peeping Toms do not just see flesh. They glimpse souls. They stand apart from us as if cantankerous gods, reading us, casting judgment. Can those Peeping Toms hurt us? Yes, for a while, but not nearly as much as we can hurt ourselves. The very fact the bastards can see into us means that, no matter how hard we try to be blind to ourselves, we shall see our own souls for what they really are in time. Or to put it another way, if they can violate us, then it is only a matter of time before we violate ourselves. This is what we fear, perhaps more than anything else, and so explains why we spend so much of our lives hiding behind drawn window blinds…
And not taking off our clothes. Oh, sure, we bathe, fuck, and sleep au natural, except when we are too damned drunk to drop our zippers; but do we actually take off our clothes? We do not take off our skins. We do not cast aside our innards. We do not even start to expose our souls, lest we be reminded of something particularly nasty or sad. Like Adam and Eve before us, we keep a fig leaf tied around our private parts; and there is good reason for our shame. It does not matter how good or kind we are. There is something, probably several things, about our past we would prefer not to remember. We each have our ghosts, our memories clanging about our consciences like Old Jacob Marley with his chains; but much worse, we also have our demons. We fear that those Peeping Toms will see them. We fear that we shall see them, too.
Okay, so try to rest a while without taking off your clothes. In time, you will find that your sleep is less and less restful. You will attribute this to old age or stress. That is true to some extent, but there is something else going on here. Like a soldier who is sleeping every night with his shield and buckler, you will discover over time that those protective devices are weighing you down. What saves you now, crushes you later. We really cannot return to God unless we are as naked and as free as a newborn babe. Try to get to the Pearly Gates while clothed, and you are liable to collapse from all of that weight long before you reach the foot of the throne.
Sounds like you are damned naked, and damned clothed. What is a man or woman to do? Embrace Jesus? For some, that seems to work. Escape in cocktails? For a while, but then the ride takes a nasty turn, and you end up shitfaced on a beach somewhere.
Or escape into stories, like this one here. Admittedly, I am biased. I write novels; and the very fact that you are here means that you have opened up one of my books. I think you know by now that this party I am hosting will last as long as you continue to read the pages that follow. The real question is what to do when you have finished the last page. Return to page one, grab for another book, or listen to the silence when this story, like everything else in life, vanishes back into the nightfall from which it emerged in the first place? I recommend the first two options; for if we listen to the silence too closely, then we are likely to hear something, now and then, which greatly disturbs us.
Something whispered. Something unearthed from our past. An angry, old ghost in chains that tells us to take off our clothes so that he can render us guilty in his eyes…
Okay, that is enough for now. I can see from the desperate look in your eyes that you want to return to the party. You may look like shit, but you would rather face the contemptuous gaze of your fellow guests than to step into this backroom here. I cannot blame you, truth be told. These old backrooms scare me, though they are no more than figments of my own imagination. Imagine how much worse they would be in your mind.
One more point, before we return together to the living room. The very fact that the other guests are going to gaze contemptuously at you is the least of your problems. You should know that the stalker is as likely to be sipping champagne and double dipping his oysters in the living room, as he is to be standing outside one of my old, backroom windows. Heck, for all that we know, every one of your fellow guests may be a stalker, staring into your soul, reviving an old sin, and stirring the flesh of a buried discontent.
If you sense that that is the case, then by all means snap for Manuel. He will be at your side within seconds, clicking his heels together, and looking up at you with his big eyes and his toothy grin. Tell him what drink you want, and then tell him to double the alcohol. Booze is the devil’s tonic. It works; but, boy, what a Faustian bargain it is.
What should you do if the liquor does not work anymore? Say a prayer, and then burrow even deeper into the pages of this book. In these pages, you will find plenty of heartbreak and horror, some gore, some courage, even moments of sublime beauty. In other words, there should be enough diversion here to keep you from panicking. This is not much in the way of consolation, I admit; but sometimes the tale is all we have when a stalker sets out to pierce our souls and to awaken those ghosts we thought long buried.
Take off your clothes, the night whispers. Even yours truly shudders in response, as we return to the party, offer toasts to the Muse, and settle into the tale that follows.