amy godliman ruinology.jpg

Illustration by Amy C Godliman

Originally published here

"Everything is a gate," you once said to me, and your words are some of the few things I have managed to hold onto.


In all my walks I could not ever recall seeing your gallery until that January evening. I do not know how I could have overlooked it. You were in there at your reception desk, reading a book, with a large mauve sun hat and a drapery of long black hair. I surveyed the collection of newly made antiques, the new paintings of old myths and the nostalgic pottery. I complimented your collection and left.


I began to visit regularly. I told you it was a sure sign of my old age that I spent my after-work walks seriously perusing a gallery of expensive imitations and Southwestern-themed niceties. You laughed then beckoned me to the backroom with your bejeweled fingers. You had a secret to share, you said.


You presented a dusty painting of a "magic ring," a painting, you insisted, that was authentically old. This was your most valuable possession, you said, and for whatever reason you passed it into my hands and insisted I go home with it. "With this, you will have access to every entrance in the city, and you will leave no trace of your break-ins," you said. "You will become invisible."


On my next walk I decided to test your forewarning in the hopes of joking about it on my next visit. To my surprise, my first attempt, the locked Joey's Barber Shop, gave way, and I stood flabbergasted amongst the unwatched combs and hair gels. I felt very alarmed and ensured I left everything as I had found it. Could this work everywhere? I wondered.


My curiosity got the best of me and I went on a night-time prowl with my newfound power. I learned the contents of private storage spaces; I tiptoed through countless apartments; I toured the gemstones exhibit at the natural history museum. I was entirely unaccounted for. I had access to a secret world. I began to know the innards of a city that, until now, I only saw from the outside. Now I was deep within.


I expected my mischief would catch up to me. I awaited police phone calls or security team apprehensions, but no matter how many cameras saw me, no matter how many alarm systems I ghostily passed through, I heard nothing. As you said, I had become invisible.


Inspired, I lived out an early childhood fantasy and made slight disturbances across the city. I skipped work to restyle and reconfigure mannequins in the Macys storefront. I missed appointments to move cars. I stole the finest wines. No matter how much I altered, I was neither seen nor stopped. In daylight and under moonlight, I may as well have been thin air.


The city took on the feel of a ruin: open and accessible, marked by inhabitance but mine to explore without witness or admonition. I was the chartered tourist of distant lives.


After my intrusion bender, I returned to your gallery to talk but could not get in. The door was locked. You were in there talking with a new customer. I saw you presenting to her the most terrifying thing: an ancient portrait of a man who looked very much like myself. I knocked loudly on the glass, shouting and questioning. You turned your gaze to mine, smiled, and then resumed your conversation.


I returned to my apartment for the first time in days, and was locked out of my own home, too. I made every attempt to enter, and called every contact I could — landlord, neighbors, police — to no answer. I realized, then, what you had done to me: in granting me access to every door, you shut me out from my life. In letting me plumb the worlds within our world, I had ceased to exist as I was.


To this day, I remain shut away from my old life. The unsold painting stands in your window. My likeness mocks me from behind glass.


I have lost interest in breaking indoors. I kick up dust in alley ways and look at the lives still lived, defined by what they can and cannot access, as I slink between gates and barriers, the bottom feeder of a common abyss.