I moved to Phoenix, not because of the silence the desert affords, but because of the particular brand of silence, it affords.
When people say silence, they mean one of two things: Either foreground silence, in which all you can hear is the ambient white noise of cars going by or the rustling of leaves, the flowing of water. This kind of silence is calming, lets in emotion. Or they mean background silence, where all you can hear is the foreground: the scratching of a pen on paper, or the ticking of a clock, the wrapping of knuckles on the table. This kind of silence is unbearable and torturous. In both cases, what they really meant is quiet, not silence.
But the desert affords you a third kind of silence that’s rare elsewhere—silence in the complete and total. Actual silence. You can go out in the middle of the day, when nobody would dare brave the summer heat, and there are no cars going by, nobody walking or playing in the streets, and what sound does exist is absorbed by the sands or dissipated into the empty spaces. This kind of silence provides me room to think, gives me space for my mind to expand and fill the dead air.
The door latched behind me, my shoes chopped along the gravel of my front yard. It was 102 degrees, and a week left before the monsoons roll in and drown out my thought space with the noise of rainfall. The university isn’t expecting my paper until the end of summer, but once my silence is disrupted, so too is my workflow.
People find that ambient quiet calming, I guess because it allows you to focus on the white noise around you and clear your thoughts. You get nothing but emotion, which I suppose can help you work through said emotion, or maybe help you de-clutter your thought process. That’s to say it’s meditative. Ronald liked that kind of silence a lot—I mean really, he couldn’t go for a minute without some kind of background noise. Even when he was writing he had music on in the background, which I could never understand. In those kinds of silences, when all you can hear is the ambiance of the room, there’s no space for your thoughts. All you can do is sit there and be overwhelmed by emotion, and there’s nothing you can do to think logically. I don’t see why anyone would want to clear their thoughts.
The lawn chair scraped across the porch, and I sat down with my notebook.
The first time I ever saw Arizona was when Ronald brought me there to visit his
family. Valentines Day almost ten years ago now, and I was upset. I’ve never been a big Valentines Day person, but we’d been dating almost two years by that point, and it seemed to me like he’d lapsed into an almost self-conscious state of aromance. I’m not much of a romantic either, but he was supposed to be. I was young, but I saw it as how we complemented each other.
The morning of Valentines Day, he tossed me a pair of his mother’s old, torn up
hiking shoes and a bottle of water.
“Let’s go!” He had that grin.
“Where are we going?”
He didn’t elaborate any further. On the ride, he opened the window and let in the hair-drier air, and I turned on the air conditioning, making for a strange Neapolitan swirl of hot air, warm air, and cold air, none of which blended but which alternately froze or burned parts of our skin. There was soft folk music coming from the radio, and we made conversation, but he wouldn’t tell me anything about Camelback.
“We’re just on a walk,” he said. “It’ll be nice!”
There were few others at the trailhead. The sun was still low in the sky, but it wasn’t too early in the morning; the first half a mile we walked amiably long, chatting, with the wind blowing through the cacti and the few winter birds chirping in the early morning.
Sitting on the porch, the words weren’t coming to me. It was supposed to be the culmination of the last year’s research into the poetry of early 20 th century Italian immigrants, but no matter how many summer evenings I spent here on the porch, no matter how many pages of notes I spread across the sand in front of me, the notebook remained blank. I closed my eyes and expanded my mind outward into the silence, searching for the frame of mind that would put me in touch with those writers, to chronicle their journey across the ocean towards a new life.
But nothing happened, and the sun was starting to set. I closed the notebook; the
rubber in the chair groaned as I stood up.
The trail ended in a wall of rock. Someone, some brave, foolish soul, had erected a handrail, implying that the hiker was somehow supposed to hike up that direct, sheer face of rhyolite. Ronald had a big grin on his face and dove right in, grabbing the handrail and pulling himself up onto what looked like just the mere suggestion of a foothold. Then he did it again, again, again, until he was a dozen feet above me. He turned around, letting go of the handrail in the process, put his arms out to the sides:
“Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth!”
We moved in together after about six months of dating using the meager advance his first collection of poems gave us. He promised me that he could pay for our first few months’ rent with that advance, but said—humorously, I should stipulate; I know there isn’t enough context for that to be assumed—that he can make no further promises about royalties.
I wasn’t worried; two of those poems had already been published prominently, and people who would know these things were throwing around words like “promising” and “new voice”. I had just finished my dissertation at that time, a ham-handed monstrosity about early 20th century Italian immigration to the United States.
When we walked together through the forested (and flat) trails of Central Park together early in our relationship, he would recite poems from memory, or sing a song, to complement and cover up the sound of the cars that made it through the filter of the forest. He always had the right line for the moment. For instance, my thirtieth birthday card, the opening lines from Frank Bidart’s “Self-Portrait, 1969”: “[She’s] still young—; thirty, but looks younger.” Or when I asked if he wanted me to read his manuscript, Bukowski’s “So you want to be a writer”: “if you first have to read it to your wife / or your girlfriend or your boyfriend / or your parents or to anybody at all, / you’re not ready.” All of these were in jest; he never took himself seriously. Love and poetry and emotion were all the same: an adventure into the heart.
The next day I was back outside. Shut the door with a click, scrape the chair along the cement, make the rubber groan and stretch as I sit down.
There were more clouds in the sky today than yesterday—I wondered how long I would actually have before the rains came and washed away my workspace.
By the time I was halfway to where Ronald was, I was pouring sweat. He barely seemed to have used any energy to get to the top of the rocks, and I was breathing heavily. His mother’s old shoes were slipping around my too-small feet; there would be no poems shouted from me, that’s for sure.
As soon as I caught up with him, I stopped to breathe, and he darted onward up the hill, snaking around the side of the cliffs, calling back to me.
The railing was my lifeline. I hauled myself up hand over hand. These things came so easy to him. Out of view, I heard his disembodied voice singing something softly, it was a popular tune, but he’d made his own lyrics for it, probably on the spot, and was serenading me from above. It drove me mad.
“Valentine’s Day,” I said out loud, but soft enough that he couldn’t hear. “Valentine’s Day. Seriously?”
If I could think rationally, I would have realized that there was nothing he was doing wrong, and that it was early in the day, and that we’d been together long enough that I should feel confident even in the absence of overt romanticism, but I couldn’t think for the sound of the wind whistling along the rocks and the humming and scatting from behind the corner. All that I could feel was emotion: What is he doing to me? Today, of all days. I don’t even like Valentine’s Day. But what was going through his mind when he thought I would like this? There’s not a romantic bone in that man’s body.
And then I stood up, sun going down already and with nothing else written.
Years after that hike, I would tell him to stop humming so that I could work. I would tell him no, I don’t want the windows open in the car, and I don’t want music to play softly in our joint office while we worked together. I wanted that silence for my thoughts to expand, to allow me space in which to work.
His working life was different: He was driven necessarily by emotion. He needed that ambiance, and so when I demanded silence in the office he would tap his foot, click his pen, wrap his knuckles on the desk. And the clock would tick. And he would stand up and the chair would shudder, and his feet would patter across the floor, and the door would shut. Outside, in the kitchen, a drawer would open, utensils rattle, the drawer would shut. A coffeemaker would beep, the fridge would open. He would come back in stirring his coffee, spoon clanking against the sides, and the printer would hum and shuffle, and he would whisper not-quite- silently to himself the words he had printed, and his pen would scratch out notes on their flow and harmonics.
I snapped my laptop shut, but unlike back in those days, there was no deafening roar of the city to overwhelm me. I was left with nothing but my own thoughts making noise that they never used to make, punctuating the complete silence with narration in the foreground and creating something inescapable.
When I first came to Arizona, my plan had worked perfectly: I’d gotten a tenure-track job at ASU within a month, and the next two years were the most productive of my life. Something’s changed. I notice silence now in ways that you shouldn’t notice the air around you. I can hear the scratches of pens, the scrapes of chairs.
By now the sun was high in the sky, and the temperature was pushing a hundred degrees. I knew we were near the top, but I could barely see anything for the sweat in my eyes. On the ground, there was a scrap of paper folded precisely in a way that I know wasn’t there by accident. I opened it up:
“Ordinarily it traveled in a convoy or pedaled along with one or two companions,”
Obviously, it was poetry, but at the time I didn’t know the name of the poem or of the author. I couldn’t even be sure that Ronald hadn’t written it himself, and that made me furious.
There was one last ledge to the summit, and I pulled myself up.
The poem was “The Biography of a Cloud” by Billy Collins. I learned that in the intervening years. I had the poem written down, and I held the paper in my hands with sweaty palms. The phone was before me, and I knew that I was about to pick it up, about to dial, but I couldn’t envision myself actually doing it. I could just look at the phone sitting there on the coffee table and hear the clock tick once, twice, three times, four times.
“but early one morning over Arizona,” Ronald had said, on one knee, with a hand outstretched, a small piece of glittering gem and metal, “it held the distinction of being the only one in the sky.”
I dialed, and when the line clicked open, I started reading the poem from where he had left off when he proposed to me, and I didn’t stop, didn’t let the silence back in.
“In the end, it died as all clouds do, in an obscurity befitting one of the minor English poets.”
I was about to continue to the next line when Ronald interrupted me and jumped ahead to the next stanza.
“But I would rather track the life of a cloud than labor over packets of letters written in a crabbed hand.”
I continued reading from my position, him from his, creating a canon of lyrics that wove into each other. It wouldn’t be like it was before—with this misleading belief that all upward climbs lead to a summit where you can suddenly see all of Arizona stretched out before you under a pale, blue, spotless sky. Those climbs are best reserved for metaphor, a way to end a story in a tight little bow. In truth, the upward climb may never end, but each step you take brings you higher, gives you a broader, deeper, more beautiful view than the last. There is no summit, no end of history, but the continual effort will yield a continual result.
I held my breath, listening to our voices spiral over and through each other, mine apologetic, his regretful, both of them mournful and mature. They were the overtones, the melodies, the pockets of sound that give meaning to the silences between them. The intrusions of emotion that make sense of and guide the logic.
And behind them, the background of the rain pattering on the stucco roof.