Image by Brooke Bourgeois

Fiction Third Room

Julian Robles

In November my landlord and her family left the city to celebrate the abrupt cessation of her husband’s paralysis. They planned to visit Durango, where she had grown up, and Quintana Roo, where their daughter’s godfather lived. The family was feeling hopeful. All of us were. Before leaving, the landlord had halved my rent and given me a spare key to the private terraza on the building’s top floor. I kissed their baby on the head, hugged the husband, and wished them luck.

In response to her husband’s paralysis, which began shortly before I moved into the apartment in July, the landlord had purged a number of habits from her life and replaced them with healthier alternatives. She encouraged me to do the same. To show my solidarity with her or with the sick man, or maybe with the two of them, I stopped listening to podcasts while making breakfast. I practiced yoga and taped my lips shut before bed. There were other changes: I cut masturbation out of my life entirely. I stopped reading novels with nameless protagonists. Instead of poking and counting the benign lipomas under my ribs, I plucked the outer edges of my eyebrows.

The night before they embarked on their trip, the landlord invited me to dinner. Her family lived in the apartment directly above mine. The husband was Honduran. She was Mexican. Their two-year-old daughter was, I supposed, Honduran-Mexican, or perhaps Mexican-Honduran, or simply Mexican, since Mexico was the country we lived in. She was white, like her parents. We ordered Italian food from the restaurant around the corner. The landlord’s husband now healthy, I judged it appropriate to at last bring to her attention certain features of the apartment in need of repair: low water pressure in the shower, a loose doorknob, flickering lights, and, naturally, the issue in the third bedroom. But out of respect for their solemn dinnertime recollections of the husband’s illness, and after witnessing their elation in describing the morning of his recovery, I again postponed broaching these issues. 

I sent a couple of courteous text messages the day after they left, which, because she was a relatively benignant landlord, received prompt responses in the form of animated stickers and GIFs. Her favorite animations tended to mirror the tone of my messages or the mood of the conversation: clips of conga lines and dancing racoons when my rent payments cleared, a meme of a terrified chihuahua the afternoon I locked myself out of the apartment. Rarely did she reply with words. That morning, frantic baby pandas spun beneath my list of grievances.

At the top of the list was the man who had been living in the third bedroom of the apartment since at least September. To explain both my delayed discovery of him and my tolerance for his extended presence, it is probably necessary that I describe the layout of the unit: the main apartment consisted of two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living/dining room, a balcony connected to the living/dining room, and a kitchen. Adjoining the kitchen was an exterior walkway that faced into the building shaft. This exterior walkway led to a third bedroom otherwise unconnected to the rest of the apartment. Its size and orientation relative to the main unit suggested that it had once functioned as a servant or maid’s quarters, or as the dwelling of a young boarder. The room sat at an oblique angle to the kitchen, which provided a view into its two windows. I recalled from my initial tour of the apartment a twin-size mattress on the bedroom floor. Opposite the mattress was a desk and a leather swivel chair, both partially visible from the kitchen. The third room was perfectly livable and functional, but extraneous to my own living purposes and to my purpose for being in Mexico. Thus I had ignored it since moving in. As a result of this neglect I can’t say for certain when the man arrived. One week the room was empty; the next he was seated at the desk, his hand moving from left to right, apparently writing.

My reaction upon spying him through the kitchen window was less fear and more akin to fatigue — yet another chore. I was in the middle of cooking breakfast, and I had an omelet to attend to. Then I had to clean the bathroom. And later that afternoon I had an appointment with the archivists at a rare book library. I’ll deal with him later, I thought. When I came home that evening, he was still in the room, still seated at the desk, and still writing. The only difference in the scene was that the bedroom’s overhead light had been turned on. The third room suffered from poor exposure to natural light; its solitary bulb had likely been emitting that dull, whitish glow since the early afternoon. These seemed like reasonable grounds for confronting the uninvited lodger — financial grounds, I mean — but I remembered that the landlord covered the utilities, and despite my close relationship with this landlord in particular, I was opposed, at least ideologically, to the existence of landlords in general, and for the man at the desk, who had never been invited to dinner or heard stories of the illness that had paralyzed her husband, my landlord would likely represent a general case of landlordship — i.e., a rent-seeking immorality that I did not want to appear allied with by suggesting that he was adding to the electrical bill. I closed the kitchen curtains and cooked my dinner: Chilean salmon marinated in homemade teriyaki sauce.

The following morning I walked into the kitchen and was surprised to see the third bedroom’s light already on and its new inhabitant seated in the same spot. Had he slept at all? Light didn’t reach the third room until almost noon, and by the early evening the room would begin to darken. One fluorescent bulb running nineteen hours per day represented a negligible contribution to the electrical bill, which, as I had already decided, was really none of my business. It was his devotion to his work that had begun to irk me. I couldn’t imagine him writing anything so important as to compel him to remain seated at all hours of the day.

I described this scene in a message to my landlord the day after her departure. My Spanish had become rigid after living outside of the country for several years; in casual conversation I could come across as stilted to the point that people struggled to understand me, and I reasoned that the landlord may have misinterpreted my initial messages. I emphasized that the man had been in the apartment — her apartment — for a month and showed no signs of leaving. Her reply: a GIF of an orangutan running in circles with its hands on its head. “I’ll get to it as soon as I’m back,” she added. She didn’t plan to return until February, at the earliest.

The only other person aware of the man’s presence was my girlfriend, who was living in Querétaro. From the beginning she had been of little help; after three years of dating, these kinds of stories simply didn’t interest her. “Don’t tell me about people trapped in apartments anymore, please,” she had said when I called to inform her of the man’s sudden appearance. “I don’t want to know about their broken hearts and their storied vanities.”

I had at the time assented while silently observing how she maintained an interest in novels about families across generations and literature vaguely to do with history — history as a process meant to induce sympathy and, in certain, directed cases, antipathy. In that regard my girlfriend wasn’t different from any of my friends. I didn’t bore her, and she didn’t bore me, exactly, but the relationship bored both of us — that was clear. It was something I had come to accept. I would never again be excited about love, but I wouldn’t be discontent, either, except in fleeting conversations in bars or in flirtatious gazes from across the room at parties — circumstances that induced not a feeling but rather memories of a feeling that had become inaccessible.

Instead of calling my girlfriend I met a writer for coffee. This writer was fifteen years older than me, spoke little Spanish, and had recently moved to Mexico for reasons that remained unclear. The writer was from New York and had written books about nameless protagonists who abandon their lives and flee to comfortably defamiliarized places. Their sites of refuge weren’t exotic in the traditional sense of the word — they were cities where everyone spoke English and that people from New York recognized at least in name, in the instances where names were provided. The idea was that the characters lost their identities upon entering these uncanny realities, or arrived at them with aspirations of nonexistence — meant to comment, I supposed, on a pervasive homogenization and disintegration of identity in our, the readers’, lives. But the settings of these stories were so plainly removed from the world of economic and political exigencies (and by no coincidence invariably devoid of non-white characters) that they became, paradoxically, comfortable and familiar to New York literary audiences, and thus I often fell asleep reading this writer’s books.

Nonetheless, given his experience in matters of people willfully disappeared, nameless, or otherwise effaced, I thought he might have suggestions for how best to rid myself of the man in the third room. I described the man’s arrival to the writer, who listened patiently and occasionally interjected to ask me to clarify certain sequences of events. After reaching the end of my story, I began silently questioning the fundamental nature of the problem. Could I reasonably argue that the man was doing any harm? His presence — at once discreet and obtrusive — unnerved me, that was clear, but part of the reason I was in Mexico was to investigate material conditions and social organizations that my peers had, so far as I could tell, ignored in their own art. In material terms, I didn’t use the third room. Wasn’t the real problem my willingness to allow a second and third room in my apartment to lie fallow? And in material terms, the man had no effect on my daily life. There was only one bathroom in the apartment, for example. That must be where he went to relieve himself. But even so, the man left the bathroom immaculate, and he must have only used it while I was out of the house or asleep so as not to disturb me. The same went for food. If he was eating my food, he replaced whatever he consumed, down to the crumbs at the bottom of the bread box. In this regard, he took (if I might hazard the rhetoric of plunder) far less than any previous guest had. A number of friends had visited me since I’d moved back to Mexico, and I had always refused their offers of payment or reimbursement, saying, “My house is your house. Any food, anything you need, don’t worry about it.” More than once I’d even hosted strangers — Central and South American migrants headed to the United States. Hadn’t I told all these people to stay as long as they needed?

The New York writer asked if I had tried confession. “Religious confession?” I asked. At the time very little weighed on my conscience. One or two deeds from childhood, nothing major.

“With the man in the room. Have you tried sitting him down and telling him about yourself.”

“Why would I need to make things about me?”

“In a way, you already have,” the writer replied. “The man in the third room could make for an interesting audience. I’ve been exploring monologue in my work lately.”

I admitted to the writer that I hadn’t entered the third room more than a handful of times, and not once since the man’s arrival. To be frank, it was an option I hadn’t considered. In fact, it wasn’t an option: to enter the room was as implausible as trapping oxygen with my hands. Why? Because the man was in the room and I wasn’t. It seemed obvious. If he had invited me in, then perhaps things would be different, but for the time being he was inside the room and I was outside.

“You’ve only seen the man from a distance, then?” the writer asked.

“Through the kitchen window.” I replied. “The window isn’t far from the third room,” I added at the sight of the writer’s furrowed brow, his mouth twisting into a smile. “Really, it’s just outside the window,” I repeated. In that instant I had trouble recalling the man’s features. I had seen him only from behind. I knew that his hair was short and black, and that he wore a green flannel shirt nearly every day. 

“How do you know it’s a man in there, or anyone at all? Maybe you left the light on,” the writer said, his smile now undisguised. These were possibilities I had already considered and discarded, I explained. But, no, if I was being honest, I hadn’t ventured a closer inspection.

I invited the writer to come see for himself. I had already decided not to see this writer again, and I had little desire to have him in my apartment, but his demure self-assurance had precluded any possibility of a courteous farewell. Better to prove him wrong than to shake his hand. It was a thirty minute walk from the café to my apartment. The writer spent most of that time outlining the plot of his latest book. He planned to return to New York the following month to attend a conference, or maybe to speak on a panel, or it was possibly the case that he was receiving an award. The details were unclear, because the writer had transitioned so abruptly into descriptions of his winter plans that for several minutes I thought he was describing deeds accomplished by the narrator of his novel. This new novel’s narrator would have a name — the writer’s name — and his deeds would unfold in familiar, fully-realized cities. Gone was the speculative wound across the material flesh; the warped mirror had been righted; the skyline openwork of tarpaulin and scaffolding would be overlaid with steel and history — so went the writer’s explanation of his book. 

We arrived at my apartment. I led the writer into the kitchen and pulled back the curtain to show him the man in the third room. For a fleeting instant I worried that the man wouldn’t be there. I had never shown him to anyone before. If he were gone, or if I saw him but the writer didn’t, it would mean I was at last losing my purchase on reality. All my life that had been a possibility, and indeed I considered it an inevitability. I had come close a number of times before returning to Mexico, and it was part of the reason I had moved back — to lose my mind alone, away from family and friends. I looked out the kitchen window, and into the windows of the third room. The man was seated at the desk, the fluorescent light glowing above his head.

“There,” I said to the writer, who was out the kitchen door before I could say more. I took a step after him, hesitated, and then came back inside. Through the kitchen window I watched the writer knock on the door to the third room, enter, and close the door behind him.

I waited. The writer was standing in a spot that obscured almost my entire view into the room. It was just possible to make out the seated man. He hadn’t stood to greet the writer or to expel him from the room. It appeared as though his hand was still moving across the desk. If I knew anything about the man after nearly six weeks living together, it was that his work ethic was unwavering. The writer could blabber for hours about defamiliarized cities and nameless characters, and the seated man’s hand would continue moving, filling the pages before him at a rate nearly equivalent to the rate of his breath or the beat of his heart. Was his project circumscribed by cadences as intrinsic, and as expansive, as these? Was I witness to an exhaustive transcription of the totality of a single life — each page a record of his thoughts at that exact instant, each paragraph a digression into the texture of each of those thoughts, and each sentence a description of the shadows cast by the texture of every variegated vanity and anxiety; and the next paragraph an account of the sensation in each limb, every finger, the simultaneous activity of every cell of his being? With the arrival of the writer in the room, the relative homeostasis of his work (which I caught myself referring to as a literary project) was likely to be disrupted. Now he would have to account for two bodies, or at the very least he would have to account for the influence exerted on his body by an additional, foreign body: the room had become a chaotic system, subject to distortions in time and space. Would his project survive such a cataclysmic event?

Night fell and the writer hadn’t returned. No sound escaped the third room — the writer wasn’t screaming for help, nor was he arguing with the man at the desk. This wasn’t a hostage situation. It was a case of two adult men in a room, plain and simple. Better to let them be, I thought. The writer could show himself out when the time came, and maybe by then he and the man at the desk would be on such good terms that they would exit my life together. 

That night I dreamt of the third bedroom. I dreamt that I had followed the writer’s advice and entered the room to tell the man about myself, but the man sat there without responding. His face was simple and familiar. It was the face of any person in a crowd, anonymous and inoffensive. He blinked and breathed, turned away from me and continued writing. I looked over his shoulder to read the text, surreptitiously at first, and then blatantly after I saw that he made no effort to hide it. The papers were covered in Oulipo nonsense: words continuously reorganized in adherence to the dream’s fickle logic. Next I tried narrativizing a bit. I hung a rope from the piping and told the man how inevitable this moment was. “This rope reminds you of your uncle,” I said tearfully. “Remember, the one who used to hide under the bed and scare you as a joke, and who later hung himself in his shed?” The man at the desk continued writing. “All ropes remind you of that uncle,” I shouted, “and now that you have tied this rope, this is the closest you will come to imitating your uncle’s act.” If I let him be, he continued writing like a robot on a circuit, but when I lifted his hand or turned his head, his body yielded without any resistance. It wasn’t difficult to remove his clothing. I cupped his penis and testicles, I took photos of him nude and threatened to ruin his reputation if he didn’t leave my apartment. At the last second I refrained from placing his testicles in my mouth. I dressed him in a rush, ashamed. I apologized and told him to stay as long as he needed.

The doorbell cut my dream short. My phone was also ringing. I looked at its screen and saw several missed calls from my girlfriend. In my concern for the man in the third room, I had forgotten that her boss had granted her a few days’ vacation. I ran downstairs to let her in. On the walk up I explained the latest developments with the man — now men — in the room, to the extent that she was interested in hearing about them. I pulled back the curtain in the kitchen and pointed to the broad back of the writer from New York. He was standing in exactly the same position as the night before. Through the gap between his midsection and arm, I spied the man at the desk, writing away.

One man, I explained to her, was manageable. But the addition of the writer complicated my responsibilities to the third room. I wasn’t sure what he would need, materially. For example, should I bring him meals and toilet paper? The man at the desk had shown himself to be self-sufficient; he attended to his bodily functions without disturbing anyone. The writer, by contrast, was only a writer — a New York writer at that, meaning he was accustomed to a certain style of praise and luxury. Luxury behind a facade of working-class grit. I wasn’t sure how much grit I had to offer. It had been several years since I’d been truly poor, and over the last decade I had come to accept the conspicuous luxury of my labor: sitting at home all day, reading, annotating, doing “work” not much different than that of the man in the third room; in that way I was similar to him, albeit far less productive. I was Mexican, that’s true, and on the tanner side, which lends itself to interpretations of impoverished grit. Maybe that would suffice.

“When will you stop worrying about this?” my girlfriend said, turning from the window and continuing down the hall to my bedroom. I followed her into the room and apologized. She sat on the bed and undressed. I lifted my shirt over my head and then unbuttoned my pants. She watched me, shrugged, and left the room wrapped in a towel. It was her ritual to take long showers after the three-hour bus ride into the city. I lingered outside the bathroom to advise her in her battle against the low pressure and unpredictable water temperature, secretly hoping for an invitation to enter. But today she was in a rush to meet friends for lunch.

“You’ve been so busy with research lately, I didn’t think you’d want to come,” she said. It’s true she hadn’t arrived at the most opportune moment, the men in the third bedroom aside. The Mexican government was funding my work. The selection committee had called the research “very promising,” and its members expected a stellar mid-year report. That was the condition of my return to the country: a report of merit on peculiar industrial patterns I had identified at the city’s outskirts — what I had argued in my proposal were critical to understanding the country’s “narratological imperatives.” But I was having trouble finding the information I needed. I worried about the months to come. I worried they would make me leave Mexico again.

My girlfriend dressed and rushed downstairs. From the balcony I watched her cross the street and hail a cab. She waved up to me before getting in. I returned to the kitchen to watch the man in the third room. I sent another message to my landlord. In it I explained that my girlfriend — whom the landlord adored — was visiting, and that it would infinitely improve her stay if we could resolve the issue of the man in the third room. In less than a minute the landlord replied with a GIF of two hearts spinning spirals around one another. She followed this with a clip of an audience applauding and another of a news reporter slipping on a mound of loose dirt.

I drafted a long response accusing her of breaking the terms of the lease, and then I deleted it. The apartment was too good to lose. It was fully furnished, in an enviable location near major transit lines, far but not too far from the hip areas populated by tourists and rich Mexicans — and I paid half of what anyone in the neighborhood paid. I also couldn’t deny that there were pleasant memories between us, the landlord and me. The German vacuum cleaner, the king-sized bed — both gifts from her. Her daughter’s godfather was a software developer-turned-shaman based in Quintana Roo, and in the fall they had involved me in a ceremony in their apartment meant to bring good fortune on the landlord’s then-paralyzed husband. It would be childish to abandon so much comfort on a whim, I told myself.

In the evening I left to join my girlfriend and her friends for dinner. On the bus ride to the restaurant, I read a short essay on my phone written by the writer who now inhabited the third room. The essay, published that very week, discussed the writer’s relationship to Mexico and the country’s influence on his upcoming novel. Prior to his arrival in Mexico, the work had been a disordered mess of shapeless characters and ideas. Now it had direction. He all but repudiated his previous four novels as amateurish drivel. The essay’s publication had been timed to the release of his book, which was receiving advance praise from critics and peers alike. The only voice missing was his. No one had heard from the writer for a couple of days, although this wasn’t yet cause for alarm; he had a reputation for entering into periods of monkish solitude after finishing his novels.

We returned from dinner just past midnight. I showered, then spent some time spying on the third room through the window in the kitchen. Everything appeared as before — the man seated at the desk and the writer standing above him, rocking just so on his feet, from ball to heel and back. Perhaps the writer and the seated man had become each other’s most trustworthy collaborators and confidants. Maybe they needed each other now. For the first time since the man’s arrival I felt happy for him. Had this been what he’d sought all along? I didn’t believe that my girlfriend, or anyone I knew, would ever offer me that kind of companionship. She praised and supported me, but I was certain that she couldn’t be counted on to fight to her last breath to preserve my work if I were to disappear suddenly and forever from the Earth. I had posed this question to myself a thousand times: would she rescue my papers from the fire and smuggle them onto the last train out of Prague? The answer was no. Before falling asleep I asked her if I should alert anyone to the writer’s whereabouts. My girlfriend said there was no point drawing so much attention to myself. We were lying in bed with the lights off. I wasn’t sure what she meant by that statement. She rolled to her side with her back to me. I touched the nape of her neck and waited.

“Remember when we used to tell secrets before bed?” I asked.

“We were younger then,” she replied. She was facing the mirrored closet. At the last second I suppressed the impulse to reach over her and turn on the lamp, to see her face, to gaze upon the expression that carried those words. The next morning she was gone.


I’ve written here exactly what I told those who came looking.

Her bags and clothing were exactly where she’d left them. There was still a small depression in the pillow where she’d rested her head, and scattered around that depression like trampled foliage were little tangles of her hair. I went straight to the window in the kitchen. The man at the desk was no longer visible. I saw her, my girlfriend, standing next to the writer. Her shoulders rounded forward and a braid unraveled down the line of her neck. The rest of her body was hidden from sight. Like the writer, she faced the seated man. They fully obscured my sight of him, but I knew.

In the days that followed I asked myself what could have compelled her to enter the third room. My initial guess was uncreative, reductive, and debased. An inventory of her clothing left in the bedroom led me to conclude that she had entered the third room with what little she’d worn to bed — a thong and a loose tank top. The three-hour bus rides between cities were becoming exhausting, and for several months we had been in an open relationship. I suspected she had waited for me to fall asleep and then crept into the third room to seek the affections of the two men, her apparent disinterest in the room a ruse all along. “Fine, you can have her,” I shouted into the building shaft. I abandoned my plan to race into the room to save her, a plan that I must admit was only a delusion of bravery. That very day I fell back into old habits. I didn’t leave my apartment for a week. Each morning I undertook a head-to-toe inventory of my body’s asymmetries. Along the right thigh had arisen two new ingrown hairs, and on the left shoulder a small lipoma. I prodded the lipoma until the skin bruised.

Twice a day I looked out the window to check on the third room. Initially I left small plates of food in the exterior walkway outside the kitchen door. A week had passed, and it appeared through the window that my girlfriend was losing weight. Maybe that wasn’t the case. Maybe I wanted a reason to believe that she was suffering and that I could end that suffering.

Given the security situation in the country, her disappearance soon caused a minor media sensation: another young woman missing after decades of so many others lost — and a foreign, upper-middle class woman at that. One day her phone rang nonstop, as did mine. The calls were so insistent that the phone batteries eventually drained. The writer’s book, meanwhile, was being discussed as a major contender for several literary awards.

I asked myself who would arrive first, my girlfriend’s parents or the police. As it happened, they arrived together. When the doorbell rang I was lying in bed prodding a small mole on my scalp. My girlfriend’s mother was in tears. She and my girlfriend’s father were just off a twelve-hour flight. I was determined to remain civil; I answered everyone’s questions and gestured toward the third room. One police officer stayed with me while two others escorted the parents into the room. When he saw that they weren’t coming back, he unholstered his gun and charged out the kitchen door. I remember thinking that he looked like a hero in an action movie.

Since that day the number of people in the third room has increased far past a point permissible by the physical bounds of the space. First more police arrived, and eventually government officials and members of the military. This attracted protesters and counter-protesters, whose disappearances hastened the arrival of volunteer organizations devoted to searching for Mexico’s missing. The ranks of the vanished grew, but I couldn’t stop counting my lipomas. Within a month journalists arrived to interview the writer. I’m not sure how they found out he was here. Later a friend of his came to present him a medal awarded for his novel. Then his ex-wife showed up with his twin sons, followed by a string of old lovers.

Despite increasing disruptions to civil services as more people in the country disappear, the committee funding my work still expects a progress report in March. It is now January. Every so often I return to the kitchen window and gaze out at the third room. I assume the light is still on and the man continues writing, although within a week of the police’s arrival the room had become so full that the windows went completely dark. This hasn’t brought me the relief I would have expected. The man has disappeared from sight, but I can never be certain of his definitive departure. His writing task has become gargantuan, perhaps impossible. For the time being I’ve holed up in this, the apartment’s second room, to focus on drafting my report for the committee. 

I’ve kept the landlord abreast of the situation. Earlier today I informed her that a Cuban reggaeton star had entered the third room to shoot a music video. She replied with a GIF of a man in purple pants gyrating beneath a disco ball. Then my rent payment cleared and she sent another video of rosy, joyous people linked in a conga line.

Julian Robles is a Mexican writer raised in California.