I remember driving around behind Meteor Crater in Arizona, off Chavez Pass Road, on a deserted bare-bones dirt track. I was deliberately (perhaps illicitly?) skirting the crater from the outside, instead of looking into it from an officially-sanctioned observation deck. The crater visitor’s center had, honestly, offended my burgeoning amateur-astronomer sensibilities. It had a certain Diz-Nee no thanks, don’t mind if I don’t vibe, and the fee to venture onto the deck was exorbitant for me in my salad days. It seemed like someone had executed a daring daylight robbery, and ugly baseball hats with flaming meteors streaking across them sufficed to distract entire tour groups from even noticing.
I felt despair. This was ours, or at least I thought it should be, like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. And yet it belonged very specifically to someone, and they didn’t really care what I thought.
So in a vanishingly small act of rebellion, I took a drive instead.
I rattled over a cattle guard, and on impulse, stopped the car, killed the engine, and stepped out into the dusty November air. Into one of the emptiest spaces I’ve ever been. Once the car’s hot metal contractions subsided, the knocking and pinging faded, and there were no other sounds available to be heard.
I realized then that perfect silence is an infrequent opportunity.
This silence was not merely the absence of sound. As I stared west to the San Francisco Peaks, namesake of the bright noisy urban jewel I’d drive almost a thousand miles to get back home to, the silence stunned me with its depth, its vastness. With its presence, its completeness, not definable by any missing thing.
I wondered: is there something about this spot that confers a special quality on silence? Is it that this place still envelops the fifty-thousand-year-old sound of a space-dizzied piece of iron puncturing the skin of the planet? Standing so close to the bedrock welt, well within the instant vaporization zone, the silence is a cottony gauze, pressing gently against the eroding wound, muting sound for miles around, absorbing that terrible, beautiful, indifferent moment in the absolute natural order of the universe.
It was only a local extinction event. It wasn’t a Chicxulub, extinguishing eighty percent of species including dinosaurs and making way for tiny mammals, or even a Tunguska, registering the equivalent of a 5.0 on the Richter scale and lighting up the night sky five thousand miles away. Fifty thousand years ago on the Colorado Plateau, packrats and pinyons, mastodons and milkweed just a few tens of miles away from that moment’s ground zero continued grazing and growing, innocent and unperturbed.
It was just a local extinction: an intimate affair.
And the desert silence outside the rim of the crater continues to diffuse the ten-megaton detonation: a moment of silence on a geological scale, by the very few things that still remember, for the many more things that never got to remember, that never knew what happened and were simply gone.
After a long time, or maybe quite a short one, I got back in the car, and turned the engine over. There, even such a comparatively microscopic combustion felt like sacrilege.
With so rare an experience in perfect silence, it feels strange to call what John does when he doesn’t want to talk to me the “silent treatment.” (I get it: language is maddeningly imprecise. We’re doing the best we can to name things, and thus hopefully to begin to understand them.)
His silence, though, is actually quite loud. When I cease to exist (when I am vaporized), his penchant is for escapism into worlds worse than our current one, which takes some doing. The television blares sounds of anguish, strife, violence, destruction, in an endless, senseless stream while I’m putting dishes away quietly.
He has told me, in more conversational times past, that he always had the television on growing up. That as a latchkey kid, coming home to an empty house without siblings and largely without parents, the sound of it made him feel like he wasn’t alone.
The television is always on in our house.
He is alone.
I am not here.
And even not being here, my ears still register the disembodied soundtrack, worse for how it floats as context-free noise, coming from the television that is somehow comforting him, present for him.
Apart from his noisy silence, there’s the silence that’s required of me. Not just not telling people, but not making noise. So that there is no interruption of the thing that keeps him from feeling alone.
(I discover the contours of this role by performing it incorrectly, repeatedly. John advises me of my failings, of course. You might think that acknowledgement of any kind feels good after its absence, a sort of upside-down Stockholm syndrome, for someone who’s not taken against one’s will, but pushed away under duress.
It doesn’t, though.)
My audible footfalls on the stairs are a problem. If John can hear my footsteps, it must mean I’m angry. Even if I’m just… walking on the stairs. I can’t convince him otherwise, so I find myself (much to my surprise and at least partial embarrassment) taking off my shoes before ascending the stairs after work.
It doesn’t stop there.
I find myself gingerly putting stainless steel pots back into the cupboard, experimenting with how soundless I can make it. I’m quietly tiptoeing around, sticking my fingers between ceramic plates as I slide them into place so they don’t make that distinct rattle of a house being lived in, a kitchen being cooked in, food being prepared with love in, a room being breathed in.
The television rages on, airless, sterile.
One thought I have, listening from above, on the nth scream of yet another actress feigning brutalization: that sounds real. And it sounds like it hurts. Even just the scream itself: she won’t speak again in a normal voice for quite some time. That is, if her speaking part isn’t coming to a bloody climax right this second.
(The fake body count is alarmingly high: not that I’m keeping track, but with every staged explosion I can feel the corpses with their ketchup blood piling up down there in the basement. Maybe they’ll start muffling the sound of my footsteps…)
Another thought I have: terror is not always that loud. It can be lethally quiet, too.
Since this can’t be a permanent state (it just can’t be), how does it end? Does a bomb explode for real? The television has perhaps been sneaking in pre-emptive exposure therapy. Does he come to me and apologize? Ha, ha, no, just kidding, that would be a romantic comedy, and those have no audience here. Do I lay my own self over the chasm? Does he cross back over the path of my body, not quite freely offered, but desperately so?
Who knows? Spin the roulette wheel and hope to land on black, almost a one-in-two chance! Spin the cylinder and hope it’s an empty chamber, one-in-six! Pretty good odds, considering the chance of getting hit by a meteorite is one-in-two hundred and fifty thousand…
It’s when I realize that I’m listening for one sound above the non-stop simulated carnage, to let me know everything is okay, that I realize something’s got to give.
The toilet flushing. It’s how I know he’s still alive, hasn’t passed out, gone catatonic, had a heart attack or a stroke or a massive gastrointestinal bleed, without having to move myself, without having to make a sound.
The best sound in my house is a flushing toilet.
That’s when I start wearing my boots on the stairs.
This silence is broken.
“You should have said something before now,” he tells me, and I want to scream, so I do. And it does hurt: I won’t speak again in a normal voice for quite some time.
It’s not a sacrilege. It’s the absolute natural order of the universe, restored. Even in the wild, chaotic breaking of the loudest silence imaginable, our aim is true. Our words both hit their marks and leave their marks.
That requires knowledge, and remembering.
It’s almost like we knew each other, once. It’s almost like we had a chance to remember, before we blinked out of existence.
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