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The Amber Room

The Amber Room

Travis Kurowski

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t is striking in its finish, in the way it shines, in its ubiquitous reflection of the surrounding lights it appears incandescent. It was even more impressive some twenty years ago when it was still new, when it still smelled of lacquer and sawdust. Sabrina and I couldn’t help but be drawn to this shiny, awkward thing with its thick wood corners situated like a trophy in the middle of the restaurant, and after one busy Thursday night when everyone had left but us—us still prone, then, to celebrating after a busy night, everything was still that extraordinary in our minds, the bar, that it was ours—we put our naked bodies against the coldness of the new wood. It was like taking possession in the largest possible way astride that colossus, the most natural thing. But there was something monstrous in it as well, and even then I could feel that our crying somehow added to whatever that monstrosity was—to the permanence of it. With every cry from me and every gasp from Sabrina, with every quick intake of breath like a thump into our lungs, we were also saying that this was ours, now. Pulling hair, grabbing flesh, the hard wood. All of it. As she clutched at my back and my hand pressed against the surface of the wood, we anchored our bodies to this inhuman thing. Sabrina cried strongly into my ear, I thumped my fist, again and again and again.

The large amount of amber colored lights we had installed in the ceiling fixtures and along the halls to the bathrooms. Those.

When we began remodeling the old building which was to become our bar, Sabrina said that an amber light would create a softer, more inviting atmosphere for the customers. Better than white.

“White is like the light at the end of the tunnel, James. Like a blank sheet of paper. While amber, honey, amber is a spark. There’s a life there.”

We would walk in the haze of soft light, serving drink after sparkling drink, answering eager questions about the new young couple in town, picking up plates wiped clean.

In bed, my heartbeat is thunder, echoing my thoughts.

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Has her body changed? The way she would move if we made love, would it surprise me? Is her skin the same as I remember? Should I touch it?

Out across this smoke-filled room I see legs forever crossed ankle over foot, women embalmed in makeup, trails of cigarette smoke lingering from small nostrils. I see old men’s eyes fixed to the space above their drinks, spinning ice cubes against their glasses with small black straws, endless motion. I hear an always-echoing laughter from a joke unsaid, or maybe only unheard from where I stand behind my oak fortress, this barricade of glassware. I feel my hand drying the same pint glass with the same terry cloth for hours without cease, running its familiar fabric inside the same smooth surface in circle after another.

“As though I’m swimming, James,” Sabrina continues between mint-scented puffs. “To the bar. To the fireplace. To the kitchen. To, well, everywhere. It’s like…being in the Atlantic Ocean. Buoyant, like foam. When I was a young girl, I was amazed how the ocean water was so salty and seemed to hold you in place. The wind carried you if it was there, but if not, the ocean held you. I would lay out in the water on my back, suspended.”

When Sabrina was a young girl she had suspected brilliance in sincerity. In her childhood she saw herself becoming a lawyer.

She always wanted to travel to the Andes of Brazil. She imagined placing a ripe, hard coffee bean on her tongue.

I love Sabrina. How could I describe my love for her? It is too immense, has gone on too long, has moved beyond love into another form. I may once have been able to sum up what this meant, in the beginning, but now it has too many alleyways, too many passages and closets, some shut now.

“Sometimes,” she says, “and I know this is strange, but sometimes I’m walking somewhere, across the room maybe, I don’t know, to get an empty glass maybe—and I am getting there, I’m walking over there, but then, listen—something happens. I get distracted or lost or something and I find that I’m right back where I started. Back behind the bar again. Looking out again at that empty glass still on the table which I swear I was only a moment ago reaching for.”

It is not yet to separate beds, but the distance between bodies is enough. Or is it? A few inches.

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What I can say about gold’s cousin, amber? It wraps in weight. A heavy color, giving the feeling of security, of serenity not far perhaps from the feeling given by the opium plant, but on much lesser a scale. Everybody wants to be wrapped tight, weighed down. Why they sleep in thick comforters. Why Sabrina stays in the bathtub for hours, fills the water to the edge, plugging the drain on the side of the tub with a washcloth. I check on her every so often, afraid she has fallen asleep. For millions of years, amber has held bugs and twigs in pure form forever young, as if not a day has passed. We can see these things in the perfect space they were captured in, when the sap dripped down from the trees above while they weren’t looking. We all scream when we come out into the open air for the first time, shuttling into the doctor’s arms, and I want to know if we ever really stopped.

We leave the windows open. Cigarettes pile in ashtrays around the house.

Possibly the greatest boxer ever, Muhammad Ali, was never the same man after those last few tremendous blows to the head. No one knows for sure during which fight they actually occurred, but he most likely continued boxing around the pain. In many ways he is now a ghost among us, a chronicle of duration.

When the car’s transmission went out, we walked the mile and a half home from the bar. It was the first of winter and cold ate at my cheeks.

Last week I came across an article in the New Yorker about a real Amber Room. It says that in Russia there was once an entire room covered in mosaics of pure amber. Some of them reached heights of thirteen feet. But on October 30, 1941, it was taken by the invading Nazi army and was never found again after the war ended. Some people have spent their entire lives searching for it. Now, a small group nearly has the entire structure rebuilt from scratch, using only some old photographs as their guides, staying all day over small microscopes carving busts and torsos, miniature bayonets and cannons, slowly working that soft material because it cannot be done too fast—amber is not much harder than a fingernail, and so patience is necessary. They are not done yet, though they have been working for years. In a picture by the article, a boyish looking young man reaches in to set another piece among the amazing patchwork of soft amber stone. An old man next to him in worn gray coveralls grins broadly.

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Sabrina and I were our own celebrities. Each night was our night to shine, to put on a show, because they came here for the food, sure, for the drinks, but didn’t they come for us as well, because it was ours? Back and forth from the kitchen to the bar, chatting up the customers and bringing out plates heaped with meats and vegetables and breads and sauces, the light reflecting on our skin.

I filed that article on the Amber Room away with the rest—I have about fifty such pieces now on the history of amber, from the jewelry of Neolithic times to its chemical structure of cross linked polymers to the tears shed by the gods for Phaëthon after his tragic fall. I have put the picture of the two men in amber above the bar.

All rights reserved to Travis Kurowski.

Janet Dogget

Greenpoint

Greenpoint