Silence as Surrounding
For months, there has been an absence of ambiance. Without our hours spent in coffee shops, offices, train stations, grocery stores. There aren’t announcements, weekly specials, musak. No sorting flatware. No renesting of cups in saucers. Keyboards, cellphones, sneaker soles against spills, against wet floors. No orders shouted, mispronunciations, aliases. No conversations half-whispered. No thud of laptop chargers unraveling, hitting the ground, skittering away. There isn’t the click of the plug in the outlet. The start-up chime. The shift of cardboard sleeves. Popping of straws through plastic tops. The thousand ways in which other people make so much noise yet you barely notice it.
Because there is no lingering. There is no crinkling of receipts. No parking breaks. No shopping cart wheels jumping the curb.
No conversations passing, overspilling momentarily from two people into three. When was the last time you overheard something? Something worth repeating? The last time you sat listening to other people doing close to nothing. People watching. The way they sit and swallow and turn pages and shift their weight. And not mind it at all.
What do we do with this distance between us and the mundane? Will we lose our tolerance of it? Do we crave it?
What will happen when we encounter someone else’s favorite song bleeding out from their headphones again?
When the parks crowded with pick-up games and cook-outs?
When the trains fill ‘til we’re in each other’s armpits and we’re forced by proximity to listen to each other breathe?
Will I burst into joyful tears the first time someone cross-checks me on the sidewalk without saying sorry? Will I be appreciative of this soundtrack? Will it be deafening at first?
All that I’ve heard is the computer fan. The space heater. The thousand or so blackbirds that spend the day moving between various trees. What else is there in the emptiness where white noise was? What do we call this absence? Does this count as a hunger?
Is this lacking of horns and kettles and copiers and coffee machines why I’ve let the cat scratch the furniture? Am I so eager to have something break up the sounds of the sink draining, the piping, the metal contracting and expanding in the cold?
I call home. For five minutes, fifteen minutes, two hours. For that stretch of time, there’s someone talking. Voice is volleyed back and forth or overlapping. When we hang up, it’s back to trucks on far roads, wind storms, my own stomach.
Sometimes we just stay on the line. Our intermittent conversation backtracked by overtime, chores, dinner. I watch my best friend spatchcock a chicken while she talks herself through it, reminds me to remind her to shower.
Her phone, and thus me, is balanced against the cutting board. I listen to the rocking, chopping sounds of the knife. Peeling skin and cursing. I have nothing to add. In another year, I would have been sitting in that kitchen. As helpful as I am now. Merely there to emit a series of uhuhs and mmhhmms. Lowly, slowly like wait music, just to prove I’m still there. That the signal hasn’t dropped. I am tuned to the frequencies of rinsing veggies, searching cabinet drawers for that specific utensil you use only for this dish.
This, this measure just above quiet is what stands in for background music. Without it, I would buy parkettes, take up the trumpet, become a ventriloquist and throw my voice into every inanimate object I encounter. I will buy tiny cat-sized sneakers just to conjure the sound of footfalls.
There are playlists, entire albums of ambient bustling, city life, cafes, study halls, libraries meant perhaps for exam prep. To encourage concentration, mimic sitting in a carousel amongst the stacks. A certain level of chaos in audio. Like a yule log burning on the television in lieu of a fireplace. A stand-in. A replacement?
I fear I will become a sports fan in the aftermath. Just to give myself access to as many voices, vendors hawking caps and t-shirts, refs, bats cracking, bad calls, anthems, pump-up jams, chants, cheers, everything. I’ll rent an apartment above a bar. Listen to buskers. Stop and listen to whatever metaphorical flowers reach my ears.