The night before Viv’s funeral, I feel my right ear empty of the roar. It’s been a year since the ear has registered external sound. As they told me at the Mayo Clinic, “when the ear’s been unresponsive for more than three months, the rule is to say it’s gone.” The left ear, meanwhile, has been working on and off for weeks. Now it’s back, and who knows for how long. I run my finger up the pinna—the bit that resembles a shell. It’s only treble, but it’s conducting. How much?
I know exactly how to proceed. Carefully, I lay myself down on my childhood bed—mattress from 1978, sheets from 1986—and put on an expensive pair of Audio-Technica headphones I’d been saving against the day. Jascha Heifetz, back in 1952, in Hollywood, plays Bach Partitas for Solo Violin. It’s vertiginous, sinister, and somehow a kind of duet, the way he plays it, a dance at the edge of a cliff.
“That’s the wonderful thing about Bach,” an old writer once told me, when I said I’d gotten into the habit of waking up to the Partitas. “He heals you.”
“The thing you have to remember about Heifetz’s playing,” said a camera repairman I used to drink gin with, “is that he wasn’t adding passion that wasn’t there. The passion was there already, Bach is incredibly passionate. Heifetz just isn’t a prude.”
It isn’t merely music but our ability to attach layers of memory to sound that makes us human. Which is not to say being human is desirable, or even entirely possible, when leashed by Ménière’s Disease. But listening is the only way I know how to live. And how can I question the way sound is tied in to everything I’ve seen or felt or tasted? I remember a story Viv told me. She was talking about her husband, my grandfather, ten years after he died. This specific part of the story was an apology for why she missed him. It wasn’t necessary, of course. I miss him too.
“He used to say things that made me laugh. I don’t know—we’d be walking across ice one day in high school and he’d say It sounds like Jack eating celery . Jack was his father. I can’t explain, but I still think about that when I cross over ice. Jack eating celery. He always said things like that that. I thought they were funny.”
In my old bed, in the house where I grew up, I take in the room. The carpet at night in the weak light of a lamp down the hall is dark blue, almost black. The walls are robin’s egg. There is paper on one wall with red, dark-blue, and yellow splatters. I don’t know it so well anymore that I don’t see it. I see it now. My sister’s room, from the brain of the same designer in ’87, was going to be pink. She pushed to make it green. I never thought to push.
Against the floor, along the wall, a neon-blue phone with a spiral cord sits. This antique thing is where a lot of my life was lived at age fourteen, mostly with Cathy. She sat behind me in homeroom and we talked for an average of an hour each night from our first to our third year of high school. I’d finish whatever shouting match I was holding with my parents before the house fell quiet and I’d pour out my restlessness onto Cathy, herself equally restless three towns away.
The last time I saw her I said, “We burned so many hours that I wish I remembered what we talked about.”
She said, “I remember it really well.”
Dinner with a single person is still possible, but under anything short of ideal conditions, eating with more than two or three is nearly hopeless. Not because I can’t hear the other end of the table, but because of the way whoever talks to me—the lips I need to look at—dodges away to catch this or that. Conversation has a pattern on such occasions, like wind moving shadows in tall grass. There are no straight lines. Conversations bubble, and then separate into two or three. They ricochet, contact, and collide like a billiards break. The collective biology of a flock of birds is what I think about when everyone’s talking in groups of one or two and suddenly the whole table laughs. Not knowing what they’re laughing about, I pretend to laugh half with them and half to myself, or at myself.
Music fixes nothing but mood, but mood can be everything. For the last three days I’ve been as listless and defeated as The Dying Gaul . Only now that I’ve got my right ear back do I feel to myself as though I’m making any sense. Music, when I can hear it, blocks out the noise, the hairdryer on high in my right ear and the feedback whine in my left.
Tomorrow, all of this will change.
I saw Cathy last month but before that it had been years. I was already having trouble on the phone last time we talked, though that isn’t why we fell out of touch. Last month, she was visiting from Strasbourg, jet-lagged, having spent all day at a conference. My hearing wasn’t any good, so I proposed a place with tables outdoors on a quiet street. The evening was overcast. She shivered in her jacket. Then she said what I heard as, “[ ]”
“Hmm? Sorry I couldn’t catch that.”
“I said I have a challenging time in Strasbourg,” Cathy said. The French [ ] but they always [ ].”
“There’s no word for [ ]”
“[ ] try to explain the idea of kindness to Philippe but even though he’s [ ], and he doesn’t [ ].”
Knowing Cathy, and the sort of thing that might bother her, I make an educated guess. “So if they have no word for . . . ‘kindness’ is what you said? Do you mean they don’t act kind either, like they don’t understand the concept?”
“Then how do they describe what Jesus was like?”
“They don’t emulate him?”
“Oh no! Ha ha! No, they [ ] weakness.”
The window to the inside of the restaurant is open beside our table and I can hear that some noise rolls out of it. Cathy speaks and gestures toward it.
“Yeah, let’s try to close it. Is it loud?”
She looks at me confusedly and shouts, as I lean beside her, “Yeah! It’s just people shouting at each other! It’s really loud!”
I spend most of the Sunday before I catch a plane back to Denver in the attic of Viv’s Victorian. It’s murky, but a few slivers of white light come through the low windows at the gables to make it enchanting rather than darkly mysterious. I feel the way I felt as a child up here: privileged to explore the storied space, conscious that my time here will not be long.
Every time I walk down to the second floor with a box of ancient records and stack it against the wall to Viv’s room (there’s a tiny window with no shade opening from her room to the hall—why?), I marvel at how small the place has become in the week I’ve spent cleaning it out. The mystery is vanishing. Ten years ago or more, she and Art let me house a bunch of wedding guests here; we told ghost stories in the attic until Shafer, a burly redheaded Texan, said “Can we please get out of here please ?”
Then Elisa told me she couldn’t handle living in New England anymore and I ought to pick a place to move. We’d just had a good weekend in Denver so I said why not. She called my bluff. A year after that I became ill to the point where a Denver block was too much to circumnavigate on foot. Now I can walk for up to an hour on foot before I feel dizzy, but sound is either gone or uncontrollable. Sometimes I can hear. My latest doctor says, “It’s a terrible disease, but believe it or not, I’m happy with where we are.”
A cardboard box full of 45s fills my arms for a second, then I may as well forget about it. It’s a bunch of old blues records. How would I get them back to Denver? With what spare cash? They’ll remain here. They’ll be thrown away.
Cathy and I avoid the obvious subject for a polite length of time, then she asks what she has to ask.
“So what [ ]?” She’s pointing at her ears.
I talk through the seven-minute version, which is about as short as I can shave it and still anticipate the usual follow-ups. The list goes: dizziness, variable hearing, vertigo, roaring. Yes, the kind when the whole room spins. Hours. No, believe it or not, it’s the hearing bit that’s worse—harder to connect with the world. No, doctors don’t understand this stuff. I’ve been everywhere. No, we don’t know if I’ll lose all of it, but the odds are good. No, we don’t know—it could happen tomorrow.
“I know,” I answer. I can guess at what she’s saying. “I know.”
“[ ] Elisa?”
“Elisa’s been wonderful,” I say. “I’m the one who’s been difficult.”
When our waitress comes by, Cathy asks her if she can help us close the window beside us when she winds her way indoors—someone is needed both inside and outside to accomplish this.
“That’s great.” Cathy says once we’ve all worked to wedge the old thing shut. “Now I can stop shouting all the time. [ ]?”
Down the street, weeks later, outdoors at a bar for older, settled hipsters, the hearing in my left ear reappears. I have been sipping club soda. I’ll order another. I’m superstitious like this. After I take a long walk down Quebec Street before both ears go out for two months, I will tend to avoid that street.
We’re talking about smoking, since a woman three tables over has done a very odd thing and lit a cigarette in a public place. Elisa says, “I’ve never smoked—and I still don’t want to start—but I’ve changed my thinking about it. I used to think it was stupid to smoke, but I just turned that corner where I’m closer to 70 than zero all of a sudden, and so I feel like I do understand what people mean when they say ‘well, something’s going to kill you anyway’ . . . I mean I’m not going to do it, but it doesn’t seem as stupid as it used to seem.”
“Well,” I say, “You don’t just drop dead from it. I mean, you suffer.”
We are drinking with a poet, who jumps in with, “Life is always getting shorter.”
Random acts of self-pity have always been an arrow in my quiver. I carefully extract one and set it.
“Well that’s one of the things that bums me out about losing my hearing so quickly in my thirties. That’s just goodbye forever to certain ideas, certain things. I mean, I was probably never going to see a live performance of the Ring Cycle, but now I know for sure I never will. So that wonderful poignancy of possibility is lost to me; I can’t cushion my head on the fantasy, or the maybe. The great maybe.”
They’re indulgent friends and they often let me speak at length like this, but now Elisa responds with “But there’s another way to see it. That you . . . ”
“That he never has to sit through the Ring Cycle?” The poet offers. I laugh at this.
“Well yes, that, but also that you can devote the time you would have spent sitting there to something else. It can sharpen your focus.”
Last April, in Connecticut. I sit with Viv in her unsteady folding chairs and watch the wildlife in the yard and the trees. For fifty years, she and Art lived in the Victorian behind us, and for the last ten it’s been only her. Whole generations of thrushes and flycatchers and raccoons have made steady lives in the old barn and the wetlands at the foot of the hill.
“I suppose you’ll be going home soon,” she says. I’m having a good day and can hear her well enough. At ninety-eight, always, even on bad days, she remembers to speak up for me.
“I’ll be back in June.” Once I’ve taught a class in Denver, one whose only goal is to pay for the tickets back and forth. I miss it here.
“Well look, there’s something I want you to do for me before you go. I want you to go into that attic and, well first I want you to put peppermint down to keep the bats away—just sprinkle it everywhere—and then I want you to carry down that trunk by the stairs. I want to see what’s in it. ”
Back in the living room, windows shut against a breeze, we pull handfuls of old snapshots and decomposing albums from the trunk in a wash of mildew. The corners of the windows are stained-glass and thin curtains block the edges just below them so the only light is the same amber and mauve as the tinted glass.
She hands me a snapshot of Art beside a grapefruit-sized ball with six antennas, like a daddy longlegs in rictus.
“That’s Sputnik.” She pronounced the u to rhyme with you . She might be right—I don’t know Russian—but her Jackie-comes-to-Southeastern-Connecticut accent (a late acquisition, I suspect) isn’t free of foibles: Hershey is Hurzy, Jay Leno is Jay Lean-o.
Wrong to call the little photo in my hand now black and white: It’s faded ochre, beige, gold. A vanishing man in a white mustache and an oversize ’20s overcoat stands beneath a bower of twigs (his stride has been arrested but he doesn’t mind) while a pool of overexposure creates a knot of light below his waist that threatens to pull him down into it. Viv no sooner gets a glimpse of it before she moves to take it. I won’t get it back.
“Oh but this . . . ” I’ve never seen her cry before, never really seen her sad. “ . . . oh dear he was my love . . . ” Italics are cheap. Love wasn’t strident, but everything went into it.
“He was my friend,” she said, and was quiet for a half minute. I looked at the photographer’s shadow, intrusive in the blur: His arms were down at his chest, dating the shot from when the camera’s sight was located on top of the box. Had they used mirrors?
“He always came into a room and . . . ” She took a minute. “He would stamp his feet one after the other to hello the house. He was so fun.” Fun she says like love. She’s blotting her eyes now but she isn’t putting the picture back on a pile. She was his granddaughter. It had been, she explained to me, eighty years since she’d looked at his face in life.
I think but I don’t talk about how every year until her balance went in her mid-seventies, she’d wait half a second after she walked into my parents’ house, and then she’d stomp her feet one after the other against the floor. I know more now and I smile at her a little more bravely than usual when I leave in the late afternoon. I’ll never see her again.
Seven p.m., my ears are a roar. In the quiet house, sky going blue, I’m arrested by a throb in the right ear like a jet taking off. There’s a dull hum in the left. Gradually, the dull hum rises, like some experiment in early electronic music, something for a Theremin and ham radio. By nine p.m., the roar is all I can find room for, so I decide it’s time to meditate. Health professionals, friends, various books, all have recommended this course and I have been trying. I set up a cushion in the study and shut the door. There’s no street noise, no hum from the refrigerator, no late calls of flying birds. As I look ahead and attempt to clear my mind, I’m called back at every second into the noise. If anything it’s louder here, the hum now something like a siren. My teeth clench, grind. I try to touch it away with the word thinking . But of course it isn’t thinking, it’s listening.
When I used to meditate years ago I’d happily anticipate that moment when the clutter in my mind was swept away. I’d relish the little noises that appeared when I could finally settle into them: the breathing of the hall, water pipes, the master’s shuffle behind us. I attained no satori but I did find I could think of nothing and that it brought me back to the space, showed me where I was.
I notice myself grinding my teeth. I’ve been in my head, escaping the noise. But it’s a mistake to try to find the other side of it. Instead I’m to . . . to what? Hear it but not feel it. Or feel it and let it go?
So as the hour waxes I dive in again, keep my teeth apart, keep my breath consistent, if inaudible. The siren has become something else now. Don’t think about what to call it. Listen.
“I’ll be just fine,” I tell Elisa on her way out of the house. “You just go and have a good time.”
She leaves for a party. I go out for a walk. It’s late on a Saturday afternoon and like every day in Denver this summer, there’s big sun and small rain. The sky’s just cleared and I’ll walk for a bit and then sit outside and write. I would rather go to the party with Elisa, but I’ve only been able to hear one voice at a time in quiet rooms this week—I’d just feel more alone there.
I order a mint tea in the quiet shop down the street and take a table. Suddenly, I’m aware that my hearing has dropped even further away. The roaring in both ears is louder, yes, but more telling is that the conversation at the table beside me—which I could never hear clearly—has dropped away entirely. Mouths move around me but no sound escapes. I click my wooden pencil against the metal table. Nothing.
I fish the tiny remote from my hip pocket and click the volume up. No, just the roar. I clear my own throat to try to hear it sound. Blank. I click the volume higher. Nothing. Click more. I can hear something faint now—you know how voices sound when you’re far off and you can hear that they’re coming, but not the words they carry? That’s how my own voice sounds. I max the remote, knowing the distortion will obliterate any sense out of human speech at this volume.
What surprises me is that it’s not just the human speech that blurs and falls apart but every report around me: A cup on a saucer, a barking dog, or a laugh from two tables away, all sound with the same electronic pock .
The chances, I remind myself, that this roar will last longer than a single day or two are low. It’s been over a year since something like this made me panic. But I can’t help but feel lonely. I’d been looking forward to an evening with a book at the coffee shop, and now what I want more than anything is a human voice. The phone is inutile, even with the headset. I couldn’t understand anyone if I drove to the party; I’d just end up making a spectacle of myself. People only like so much of that.
It’s when I’m home that I give in to panic, but only after the door’s shut behind me. Then the vertigo starts: My legs go out from under me and my cheek hits the floor. It’s more accurate to say the floor circles up toward me, followed by the ceiling it’s merging against, hovering with. I’m caught inside it now, the spin, clutching onto the underside of a sliding closet door as though it’s my mother’s hand. I’ll unsettle it from its hinges if I keep grabbing at it like this, I know, but I can’t stop. I can’t stop spinning or holding on. I whimper like a kid. I can’t move.
Where the greensward dips to the stone wall and the wetland, on what used to be the banks of a tributary of the Yantic River, I set up one of the ancient card tables from Viv’s house. This one had lived in the upstairs kitchen, unused since the sixties when Viv and Art paid off the mortgage and quit renting out the upper floor. Once that’s done, I reach for my black Boston Bomber backpack and extract from it a bottle of Viognier and two twelve-inch grinder sandwiches from Irene’s. I set the steak and cheese on the side facing away from the big old white barn and the BLT (fist-size tangles of bacon, iceberg flakes, some rumors of white tomato) on my own side of the table.
In a few minutes Adam is there and we tuck in to eat. I apologize for the spot, although I don’t have to. “I think I got attached not just because of Viv, but because this place was my last connection to this kind of shabby gentility dream I’ve always had. You know, the guy in the frayed sweater who’s got stacks of dough in the bank. Getting the dough was step two.”
“Is there any way . . . ?” He wipes the corners of his mouth with a non-absorbent grinder shop napkin but there is nothing there, never was. Adam plays shabby genteel better than I ever could. “I just wonder if there was some way you could convince your parents to hold off selling so that you and Elisa could move in and live for a few years and fix the place up . . .”
“That ship has sailed.”
“It’s just a shame because I know you and she had a real attachment. Just the last time I was here, when we were walking through that graveyard, you were telling me about how she was ninety-eight and she’d told you a joke—and it was a good one!”
He’s indulging me. That’s all right. And it had been a good joke.
This fat woman gets stuck on the toilet. Her husband says “I’ll call the plumber.” He gives her his derby hat to put over her lap, for modesty. The plumber says “I can get her unstuck, my friend, but the guy in the derby hat is a goner.”
Adam says “You know, I hate to say it, but do you know what would be perfect?”
“Another bottle of wine?”
He sits back, emphatic. “ Yes .”
“We’ll walk through the meadow.” I haven’t walked through the meadow since 1994 and I assume it’s a blizzard of Lyme ticks. But I lead him down the tree-shaded streets two houses to the north and down the slab steps into to a meadow clear out of a dream.
“You have this in your back yard ?”
“Once upon a time.”
Everywhere the sea-waves of grass are high. At the end of the sward of it, just distinguishable in mild haze: Viv’s white barn. I’d been up on the roof of it two months earlier, tweeting pictures of my face in a sanitary mask, big iron fireplace shovel in my hand, scraping out bat guano. I couldn’t imagine a situation in which I’d stand in this meadow again.
“You and Elisa could have hosted poetry readings on the lawn,” he says while real butterflies beat their wings around us. “I’m sorry about that. What if you offered to pay rent?”
“No, the house is gone and I’m going deaf. I just feel like, I don’t know, like my narrative is just loss lately.”
Adam said something I wasn’t hearing and I registered the click down in my ability to take in sound along with the soft look of the meadow and the stone bench beside us and the high-summer green of encircling trees. The next afternoon I’d be out west again, where to find green like this you’d have to climb to it.
Denver. I wake up while the dark drains out of the sky and I can hear the birds. The calls wake me. I’m so unused to hearing them that they stagger when they filter in, pull me out of an anxious dream.
Elisa’s awake too and she isn’t groggy. She takes as a given that they’re there.
“There’s one of them, the angry one who’s fainter than the starling.”
“He’s farther away,” she says. Of course.
“All right, it may be starting to disappear again now,” I tell her. She takes hold of my arm and rubs it with slow strokes while I listen to the birds fade. Then she nuzzles against me and she’s asleep again, a gentle weight on my chest.
I can hear them fading, going—they’ll be gone at any second. As I listen to the last catches of song, I can feel my heart break in every sound. Don’t let that one be the last one. Don’t let that one. Don’t let that.