By Daniel Elder
You scurry around looking for quiet. You search for it in all of your familiar places. You see quiet’s tail disappear around corners but when you turn them all you see is neon Little Italy, all you see are fading brownstones, all you see is the Brooklyn Queens Expressway running its surgical scar through Sunset Park. You know this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, that the chase has a loudness, and this is absurd. Chasing quiet. You sit in a yoga studio with strangers and you drink a foul plant brew. Sometime in the night, in the space between the curandero’s songs, you discover quiet. She is curled up in a tender ball just below your heart, so that every beat awakens against her and her purr soothes every peal of your tired bell. You sit with her, so close you feel inseparable. But you can only sit there for eight hours. You can only vomit so much of your trauma into the plastic bucket that’s provided. In the morning you leave the yoga studio, leave the warm embrace, step out into sunlight that caroms off of all the steel and glass surrounding you. You feel quiet stir and you try to hold on to her but quiet is a twitchy woodland creature and once again she is off and running. A wind stirs litter in the crowded street.
When he was little, the boy knew quiet. It lived outside his room, in the night time, after his father and his mother and his sisters were asleep. A voiceless chorus sat just beyond his feet, arrayed along the foot of the bed: walrus, buffalo, Big Bird, seal, puppy dogs, teddy bears. Gorillas, tigers, and kangaroos. Some of them had stitching coming loose. Others still smelled of the gift shops from which they’d recently been brought home. The boy found comfort in their faces, in their plastic button eyes. They gave shape to stories swimming in his head. They were his heroes, and they were his villains. The boy was curious about the quiet, just beyond his bedroom door. He couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was out there. In the middle of the night he tiptoed to the door. He turned the knob gently, so it wouldn’t make a noise. So no one knew that he was coming. So he could catch them unawares—whoever they were. Perhaps because he himself was weaving stories, he suspected that he was in one, that he was at the foot of someone’s bed, playing a part. He swung the door open and stepped swiftly out into the hallway. He did this again and again, night after night, hoping to catch whoever’s story he was in. But the apartment was dark. Everyone else was asleep, and there was no one waiting in the hallway, in the dining room, in the living room. There was only quiet, all around him.
The eruption happens at approximately 1:42 PM on an innocuous Tuesday afternoon. At first I think something has upset my stomach. I pace around in my office, seeking to settle myself down. But the billions of nerve endings in my digestive tract, my second brain, are electrified, alight, on fire. The upwelling spreads into my lungs, my throat, my brain stem, up behind my eyes. It becomes a psychic nausea. So I leave. I unchain my bicycle under grayscale Portland skies and feel a tight fist closing around everything unleashing in my bodymind. Pushing it down. God forbid I cry at work; I’m supposed to have my shit together. I unchain my bicycle and walk across the street to an industrial parking lot and lean my bicycle against a truck and lean my back against a concrete wall and melt. Sobbing out an awful mammalian yowl. Vaguely aware that my entire story has just caught up to me. Thirty-two years of one life and then the violence of pulling up my roots, however willingly, and transplanting them to fresh soil. Crying in a parking lot. Wishing this would happen at a better time, a better place. I’m supposed to have my shit together. I want to calm myself, I want to quiet this storm, but more than anything I want a hand to reach out. I want someone to touch me. I feel two hands inside my mind. My mother smoothes the hair from my forehead. My father pushes me forward. One tells me that this too will pass. The other tells me life is suffering. I breathe, and ask the fist inside to open up. I beg it to release.
Before his father moves out of the master bedroom and sets up camp behind the sofa, there is an uneasy détente. The boy’s parents continue to share their room, in separate beds, but the paperwork has been filed. The boy is fourteen. One older sister is at college. The other is asleep in her room down the hall. The boy stays up at night, talking to strangers on a glowing screen. Typing away, pretending to be someone else. Roleplaying. A blood-drinker from an island cloaked in mist. A succubus who fell with Lucifer in the Great War before Time. The Great War in his real life has only just begun. At this point, it’s mostly border skirmishes. His father’s escalation—the occupation of the living room—is still some months away. But the boy can feel it, pressing down against his door from the hall outside. At three a.m., sleepless, he switches off his monitor, opens the door to his bedroom, and walks down the very real hallway. His father’s snores permeate every corner of the apartment. The boy sits down on the ground just outside his parents’ room and leans back against the wall, drawing his knees up to his chest, folding his arms across them and bowing his forehead to rest on his forearms. He listens to the snores, and the quiet space between them. Sitting in the fracture. Waiting for the dawn.
The huge old house on Fargo Street is quieter than any space you have ever called home. At night, walking its halls through the flicker of tea lights, you feel like a monk in a temple. You are growing deeply aware, with each passing evening, of the weight of your body, of the way you displace space and time. Aside from childhood summers spent upstate, you’ve never lived in a house. This house is a being. She lives. She creaks in response to your touches. You worry that her moans might wake your housemates, and you feel a bit like an intruder here, being the newest. So you are learning—learning where to touch, how to soothe, how best to tread softly upon the flesh of this old wooden body. The quiet house lives in a quiet city. You bicycle the streets at night, and the rush of the air whizzing past fills your eardrums. You stop at an empty intersection overhung with towering walnut trees and allow yourself to listen. Listen to the quiet city. Listen to stillness. And here outside you feel like an intruder, too. Noise; it clings to you like moss. Covering your insides. You ride home. The lights are all off in the house. You carry your bicycle down into the basement, leaving your shoes beside it. You close the door at the top of the stairs from the basement very carefully. You climb another staircase, in your socks, to the second floor, keeping your feet to the right edge of each step where you know the wood protests the least. You walk past doors behind which people sleep, to the space you now call home. Aware, with each passing night, that the wood beneath your feet walks back against you. Kneading its quiet into your bones. Massaging the cacophony from your flesh and your blood.
Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. His words have appeared in Nailed Magazine, Ghost City Review, and the MAPS Quarterly Bulletin. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.
Love this on so many levels, especially: “Vaguely aware that my entire story has just caught up to me. Thirty-two years of one life and then the violence of pulling up my roots, however willingly, and transplanting them to fresh soil.”