I hear my husband packing away sports memorabilia in the bedroom. I am in the living room of our tiny DC apartment, working on the draft of a story just twelve feet away. Outside the window, the engine of an ambulance idles, its red lights reflecting off the exteriors of the buildings up and down our street. We both stop what we are doing to take a look, confirming none of our neighbors are being wheeled away.
Almost two years in the District and we are still more curious than most city dwellers. I like to think it is the writer in each of us that makes us want to stop and watch life happen, collecting observations no matter how minute. I keep the windows open even in the winter and let the outside world in. My mother says, “I hear another siren,” each time we speak on the phone. To no one in particular, I repeat the ramblings of the teenagers on their way to and from school, enchanted by the slang I’m slowly growing too old to understand. I sing along with the mentally ill El Salvadoran man who walks the streets of our neighborhood, belting out ballads in Spanish at full volume, though I don’t know the words.
My husband recites obscure lines from films he hasn’t seen in twenty years. I have a knack for recognizing celebrities by voice alone. Our world is made up of fragments of speech and incomprehensible sounds and forgettable lines and song lyrics and charming things the other has said. We speak in no-speech, a kind of language we’ve invented like twins who’ve shared a womb though the closest we’ve ever come is sharing a bed. For just over eight years now.
He says I love you like this:
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die.
Only you can cool my desire
I’m on fire.
Even our dog had a voice and a fictional personality to match. Now that she’s dead, we use the voice for strangers’ dogs.
Sometimes, in the city, you might hear firecrackers and mistake them for gunshots or gunshots and mistake them for firecrackers. One day I walked home from the metro station with a friend and heard a gunshot so close I felt as though I fired it myself. Without the impediment of distance, they sound nothing like the quick pop of a firework. Everyone on the street looked for the shooter, all of us disoriented by the reverberations, so shocking it felt like standing in a storm cloud at the first break of thunder.
We live a half a mile from the Smithsonian Zoo, and in the spring we walk there to watch the elephants and pandas eat bamboo out of barrels. Once, on our way to the lion’s cage, we heard them roar, and I thought the sound was too perfect, too precise to be real. I insisted it was a recording the zookeepers made to get you in the mood. But when we arrived, I matched the sound to the movement of the lion’s mouth and stood in awe and listened as he shouted.
I try to name the most surprising things I’ve ever heard. A car crash. A punch to the face. They surprise because they don’t sound the way they are depicted in film. In reality, there is a sudden coldness, an utter silence that follows and feels heavy with consequences.
Today, we bombed Syria’s Shayrat Air Base. On the Internet, I watch a soundless video of Tomahawks arcing over the Mediterranean Sea like pop flies and hear the crack of a bat, fifty-nine times. Two days earlier, the town of Khan Sheikhoun had heard a perhaps now-familiar sound. Having never experienced it, I cannot claim to know it, though I imagine it’s not so different than the roar of a lion, the first break of thunder, and the shock of a fired gun if laid on top of one another. Afterward, we watched the sarin-laced bodies of children lying limp on the pavement, their dilated and searching eyes and their dull, silent gasps the only markers of the life left inside them.
Even silence has a sound, I know. Even when still I can hear my body working, eyelids creasing together, teeth clicking. Inhales, exhales, knuckles cracking.
I once read an article about a man with a hole in his ear canal. It allowed him to hear the commotion of his body at full volume. Swallows became waves; the eyeball scraped its socket like a needle against an eggshell. The blood that kept the brain alive, a sure and steady pumping. Hearing the body living is torture, he told the curious reporter. Chewing can deafen.
When I think of him, I know we can arrive at a point when we have heard too much. Where noise becomes unbearable.
When it becomes more than I can bear, I think of the ocean. I can float in water without trying, my body buoyant, rising quickly to the surface as if it’s filled with air. This is a trick my mother performed, and my grandfather before her. In the ocean, I lift my feet, toes pointed to the cloudless skies, and feel boundless, celestial. My ears, grazing the surface of the water, are trapped in a gyre as if someone holds seashells against them, a liberating echo. It’s nearly the sound of the cars rushing down the street outside our second-story window. If it’s raining, I close my eyes and can hardly tell the difference.
In bed, I turn toward my husband, the shallow breaths of sleep escaping from his mouth not all that different than the ocean against my ear or the cars on a rainy street. The red lights of the ambulance are long gone, the laptops put away. I think of a mix CD he once made me, track five a recording of Frank O’Hara reading one of his many poems called “Poem,” the ending like this:
seems slow suddenly and boring except
for my insatiable thinking towards you
as you lie asleep completely plotzed and
gracious as a hillock in the mist from one
small window, sunless and only slightly open
as is your mouth and presently your quiet eyes
your breathing is like that history lesson
A vacuum in the hall interrupts his sleep, the sound steady and whining as the cleaning woman pushes it forward and yanks it back, forward and back. He turns and drifts away again. Outside, tires slosh the rainy streets. The sixth-grade history lesson to which O’Hara referred was on Warren G. Harding. Reflecting back, he called the lesson, like the breathing of the person sleeping next to him, elephantine. I am reminded of the elephants at the zoo, slowly lifting bamboo shoots to their mouths with their trunks, no sound to disturb them but the quiet rustle of leaves. I mouth the word elephantine. Over and over. I close my eyes, lift my feet and point my toes.
Emily Myrick is a third year MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Maryland. Her story “Some Whales Have Hearts the Size of Volkswagen Beetles” was recently selected as the winner of Fugue’s 2017 Writing Contest. She is currently at work on a novel about 1940s textile mill workers in the rural south.