The sound started on a Thursday, sometime in the early afternoon. Those who were coming back from a late lunch stood for a moment tilting their heads, trying to figure out which building had the fire alarm, hoping it was theirs. But most of us didn’t notice until we headed home and realized that the noise we’d been hearing thinly through the walls for hours, the noise we’d assumed was someone’s phone going off or a malfunctioning door buzzer or a microwave a few floors away, was coming from everywhere.
We eyed one another for signs that something should be done: Evacuate? Line up in an orderly fashion? Put our heads between our knees? But there were no signs. On the street, everyone walked at a normal pace, winter coats zipped to their chins despite the unseasonable weather. On the subway platforms, everyone stared at their phones. So we walked at a normal pace and stared at our phones as if nothing was happening. We figured that if everyone else looked calm, probably nothing was.
It was the sort of sound younger people thought of as “like an air raid siren,” and then caught themselves and realized that they’d never heard an air raid siren before. Older people, who knew, were reminded of an air raid siren too: double-voiced like a Tuvan throat singer, a steady drone in the background and then a keening wail climbing and descending the octaves in front. If it was an air raid siren, though, it was miles away. We didn’t have to worry about it; or anyway, nobody else was worried. It just hung around on the edge of consciousness, a thin splinter of alarm.
We could still hear it at home, but we didn’t mention it to our families. We made dinner, ate dinner, turned the TV up a notch louder than usual. We tried to be as decorous as possible as we rotated in bed, head under the pillows, then head between the pillows, trying to block the noise. Across the bed our spouses shuffled quietly.
For the first few weeks we stayed ready for something to happen, but nothing did. Trains kept running, offices stayed open, bombs didn’t fall. Cops didn’t sweep in, or no more than usual. Nothing was on fire. We stopped peering into the sky when we thought no one was looking.
It got easier to sleep, and harder. We fell asleep quicker, and didn’t dream of missiles whistling down. Instead, we dreamed one long thread of sound—no images, no plot. We woke to a seamless continuation of the seamless sound of our dreams. Across the bed our spouses rolled over and we wondered if the thread had pierced their sleep as well, two dreaming minds embroidered together.
We couldn’t ask anyone if the sound was getting worse; it would have been awkward to mention it, after all this time. We just raised our voices when other people raised their voices, and when they raised their voices more we raised our voices more. If that wasn’t enough, we smiled when other people smiled and laughed when other people laughed. When we talked we looked at people’s mouths and hands instead of their eyes.
On first dates we smiled and shouted; on third dates we gave up and gazed at each other. Third dates were early for gazing, but what else were we going to do? We pointed at items on the restaurant menu, or we said our orders out loud and got the wrong thing and ate it anyway.
Work seemed like it would be harder, but for most of us there was no difference at all. When our bosses’ lips moved, we nodded and did whatever we were going to do anyway. We spoke by email with coworkers who sat one cubicle away. On birthdays, we stood in the kitchenette chewing on bad cake and tried not to look at one another.
Eventually there were days when all we could hear was the sinuous howl of the sound. Sometimes we thought we could hear voices mutter their way through, but maybe we were imagining things.
We became scholars of body language, learning the vocabularies of curled lip or shifted eyebrow. Some of us found that we heard people more clearly when we listened to their nostrils or the position of their jaw than we had when we’d been able to hear their words. Others retreated from communication, using the sound to bolster their own solitude. Some of us just yelled and yelled and yelled.
The news reported some incidents. A cult in Wyoming that promised “inner quiet” started attracting hundreds of pilgrims, and wound up in a standoff with police. One man was arrested buying enough explosives to temporarily deafen everyone in a twelve-block radius. Another shot his family and then himself. The news anchors said that he and his son were both talented musicians—at least, we were pretty sure that’s what they said.
“Tragic,” we mouthed to one another. “Inexplicable.”
Of course we were angry sometimes, or sad, or lonely. We were drowning together, but not together: Even hand in hand we were on separate flooded continents, impossible to bridge. But there’s no guarantee we wouldn’t have been angry or sad or lonely anyway.
It’s not that we don’t remember what it was like before the sound. If you asked us, we could tell you: It was quieter. It was sometimes truly quiet.