A personal essay about trying to figure out how quiet I really want it to be.
|The robot vacuum cleans downstairs while I sit upstairs and the constant hum of its motor pierces my illusion of silence.
The older of our two dogs walks on the hardwood floor and her nails sound like slow, rhythmic tap dancing. The clock ticktocks toward the bottom of the hour when it will emit a single coo coo.
I simply cannot escape the sounds. The hum of the vacuum stops and then a faint robot voice utters an error message; it must be stuck somewhere. The dog stops walking the floors but my daughter emerges from her room and sits in the kitchen. She giggles occasionally at something she is reading or watching on her computer.
I hear the control panel beeps and sing song of the dryer starting up in the mud room, which means that my wife is home after from her walk around the block on this chilly Saturday in January.
My wife walks into the kitchen, says hello to our daughter and declares that the walk felt amazing. Both dogs get up from the living room floor and head towards the conversation, seemingly knowing that it might be dinner time.
My son enters the room where I am sitting and then, without saying a word, departs for the kitchen where he enthusiastically greets the dogs. He loves those dogs!
“What’s for dinner, dog? What’s for dinner, huh?”
The dogs must know the word ‘dinner,’ or at least they recognize the upbeat tone of voice that accompanies that word. They perk up, heads bobbing and tails wagging. And more tap dancing.
My wife follows their lead and asks, “Are you ladies ready for dinner?”
Their dinner time is 5:00 and while only a few minutes have passed since the coo coo denoting 4:30, this is close enough. My wife feeds the older dog in the kitchen and our daughter agrees to feed the younger dog down in the hallway bathroom.
More sounds: my daughter briefly turns the sink faucet to fill the water dishes and then turns it off again. She opens the squeaky closet door to get dog food and then closes it.
The younger dog attacks her bowl with loud crunches as if she is starving; the older dog eats more slowly and deliberately. When finished they move towards the sliding glass door, asking to go outside. The door glides to a thud when opened with force and a second thud when closed.
* * * * *
Fifteen hours later I am sitting in exactly the same spot. I tune into sounds and realize that it is quieter than yesterday. The dogs have been fed and, for the moment, no one is in the next room or entering through the mud room.
There is still no silence. The bathtub faucet turns on in the distance as my wife runs herself a bubble bath. My daughter is downstairs, opening and then closing a cabinet door and singing to herself as she attends to her yellow bellied slider turtle.
Next I hear my son’s voice down the hallway in his room. I cannot make out his words but I think he is talking to one of his friends through his wireless headset as they prepare to play video games.
The bathtub faucet turns on again, briefly, as my wife adds more hot water to the bath. My son raises his voice momentarily; I do not know why other than because he is 16 years old and bursts with enthusiasm.
The bathtub faucet again, then more sounds from the basement that I cannot discern. It is still quieter than yesterday, even though the coo coo clock has stopped ticking. Its long chain cords hang motionless all the way down to the carpeted floor.
* * * * *
I do remember silence from many years ago. I was single back then, in graduate school, and I lived alone in an apartment on the second floor, without any pets.
Nothing moved in that apartment unless I moved it. If I left the newspaper on the table when I left in the morning, it was in exactly the same place when I returned. If I wanted my dishes or clothes or bed linens to be clean then I had to wash them.
When I was not in the mood to wash, the dishes sat in the sink, the clothes filled the hamper and the unclean linens stayed on the bed. But I always made my bed in the morning, clean linens or not, perhaps to soothe my unquiet mind.
I remember sitting on the couch in that apartment, in the living room, and doing nothing. It was not like now, a choice despite plenty to do. It was silent then, except for when cars drove by on Mifflin Avenue below. I felt alone, with plenty of discomfort and little desire to face it directly.
My apartment number was actually the letter C. That particular detail stays with me because when I ordered new checks I wrote my address as 519 Mifflin Ave. #C.
The mailman delivered the checks to the correct address despite the fact that they were printed incorrectly; instead of #C they had printed #3. I got annoyed. Then I filled out the order form a second time and requested, once again, that the checks read #C.
The second batch of checks arrived just like the first with #3 instead of #C and this time I was indignant so I decided to make some noise. At my earliest opportunity, perhaps the next day, I drove to the bank and expressed my displeasure. I told my sad story to the teller and showed her the incorrectly printed checks.
She told me that the order was probably confusing because C isn’t a number.
Nevertheless I insisted that the checks must read #C instead of Apt. C or any other reasonable alternative. The teller and I went back on forth on this critical matter before she took steps to ensure that the printers would get it right.
When the third batch of checks arrived I lifted the cover off of the box, saw the #C and felt vindicated. I knew what I wanted, stated it clearly and held my ground until it was right.
Back at the apartment I continued to knowingly struggle with silence but my awareness was not helpful. Sometimes I called friends on the phone, or my parents, or watched tv, or rented movies.
Once I called into a sports talk radio show to ask a question of the guest. I waited a long time, at least an hour, before my turn, and then my question fell flat. The guest answered in a sentence or two, the host dismissed me and the line went dead.
* * * * *
I had a girlfriend who lived 15 minutes away. Sometimes she came over but more often I went to her apartment where it was not quiet even though we did not argue frequently. I had big reactions to small things and she insisted that my feelings were mine, a very uncomfortable truth, and had nothing to do with her.
I needed the relationship to work and she did too, so we stayed together for 6½ years until I could no longer stand the silent pretense. Eventually I screamed out by getting involved with another woman who did not deflect my feelings.
My relationship with the other woman was certainly not quiet; she was full of energy and exuded a love of having fun. We were together for a year and a half and she wanted to get married, although not right away.
I loved being with her but her unbridled enthusiasm also scared me. Once we went to a casino in the mountains and played 25 cent slot machines. She kept winning and filled several tall plastic cups with quarters. It was all very exciting until her euphoria turned into confidence that winning would continue indefinitely.
Over the incessant noise of the casino I told her that we should put away whatever amount we started with plus a little extra, or stop playing altogether so we could go and enjoy a nice dinner. She acted as if she did not hear me.
She kept putting quarters into slot machines, one after another, or several at a time, until I could not watch it anymore. I stopped playing along and tried to walk away but she kept right on playing. Then the fun ended and I felt alone.
We broke up when I moved away to begin a fellowship in another state. Before leaving I stopped by her apartment to say my final goodbye. She greeted me at the door in her white bathrobe, looking as if she had not slept much. There were tears in her eyes. I hugged her, told her I loved her, and then I turned and walked away.
It was quiet again. On my way out of town I pulled behind a fast food restaurant and put a plastic milk crate filled with my collection of record albums into a large dumpster. I decided they were too bulky to take with me but maybe I was trying to get rid of excess noise.
I drove east, onto the interstate, and moved several states away. My next home was a rented apartment on the third floor of a charming old house on Ashland Avenue. The apartment had its own street address, so there would be no confusion when I ordered new checks.
I did not know how quiet it would be or how I might feel about it either way.