Now, I live in a city and things are never quiet. Even if there is a moment with no car alarms or sirens or voices, there is still noise – the swooshing sound of a car driving past, the ca-chung of the upstairs neighbor flushing the toilet, radios, televisions, steps – just the sounds of humans living close by. I once lived in a place where silence was possible, unavoidable, in fact. You would find yourself walking into it, like swimming into a pocket of warm water in the ocean. And then I would walk for blocks hearing nothing but the sound of air moving past my ears or leaves blowing in the wind, and that only occasionally because there was never very much wind. There was mostly just stillness and the overwhelming sense that I was alone.
“This is the shape of the solar system,” our teacher announced one morning as she drew an ellipsis on the blackboard. “And this,” she said, drawing an identical shape next to it, “is he shape of the school district.” The school itself, much like the sun in the real solar system, was situated at one end. Locating my family’s house on the diagram, I found hat it was just about at the opposite end, where Pluto was. My friends Ellen and Sarah lived half-way down the ellipsis, around Mars and Jupiter, and my friend Natalie lived right next to the school. If our school was the Sun, Natalie lived on Venus.
Natalie’s family used to live in one of the landmark houses in the school district, a big white house with four stories. But then they bought an even bigger house. The house had been built by an heiress, who had lived there alone with a servant until her death. I had never heard the word heiress used in our town until the day Natalie said it has it made me even more curious about he house and the noises that Natalie often heard at night and which, she said, sounded a lot like someone scratching their fingernails against the walls. I never spent the night there since Natalie wasn’t allowed to have sleep-overs, but I knew that there was something strange about the house. It was large and dark, and, even in the spring, cold, because my mother told me, even rich people have a hard time heating big houses. The house had five bathrooms and a dumb waiter, a kind of elevator but one we couldn’t ride in because we were too heavy. There were only the three of them in that big house, Natalie and her mother and father, along with a long-haired cat named Misha. Natalie had long, wavy black hair and eyes that looked a lot like the cat’s – almond shaped and green.
I was an only child and spent a lot of time alone, hiding things in a series of miniature boxes and then forgetting where I had put them; excavating closets and cabinets and drawers; mixing potions out of long forgotten spices that I found in the kitchen. I had a collection of music boxes, one with a little ballerina that sprung up when the lid was opened, a wooded one painted an evergreen color that played Edelweiss and was also a jewelry box, one that was covered in pink quilted material, and one made entirely of translucent plastic, which revealed all of the mechanical workings inside: the cranks and drum and the tiny needle that actually made the sound. What I liked to do most, though, was pretend to be an orphan who had been separated from her real family through some tragic accident. To make this obvious to the rest of the world, I adopted the manners of some imagined foreign dignitary. I bowed to sales clerks at stores, spoke with a funny accent, even talked about “the old country,” adopting a far away look in my eyes whenever I did.
I was always excited to go to Natalie’s house since my phony personality seemed to belong there. My adopted manners were perfectly matched to the setting and it seemed odd to me that Natalie didn’t like the big house, that she preferred the hold house, the one that was more like other peoples’ houses. “Hello Mommy,” Natalie yelled as we wandered from the kitchen to the dining room. We found Mrs. Edwards in a room called the “summer living room,” which was used both summers and winters but which was decorated with white and green chintz couches and white wicker chairs. The other living room, the “winter living room,” was all red and green velvet. That living room, like the cat, made me think of Russian things.
Mrs. Edwards never got up when she saw us, she just smiled, her bright pink lips looking like a rose bud from all of that greenery. She sat with a pile of old Gourmet magazines next to her. “Hi Mommy,” Natalie said again. “Hello Li-Li,” her mother replied, using the nickname that Natalie hated, “come give Mommy a kiss.” Natalie walked over and kissed her on the cheek. I had only seen people in old movies kiss that way. My mother referred to children fondly as boogers and gave us all giant hugs – even the kids she didn’t know very well. “Hello Isabel,” she said to me. “Li-Li,” Natalie’s mother called out as we were walking toward the kitchen to get our snack. “Yes Mom – my,” Natalie said, stressing each syllable to make it clear that she wanted to be left alone. “Oh, never mind, we’ll talk later. Goodbye Isabel.” “Goodbye,” I said, wondering why I would never see her again, even when I was leaving to go home.
As soon as we left the room, my Natalie returned. “Let’s have some Oreos,” she said, pulling the big bag of cookies from a shelf in the pantry. “Do you want some milk?” We sat at one of three little tables that were lined up in the glassed-in porch at the back of the house. I always felt like I was in a restaurant when we sat there. I wondered what they did with three tables. “How shall we eat the cookies today?” Natalie asked, unscrewing the top black cookie from the bottom black cookie, making sure the pure white sugar filling was not nicked in the process. “It’s important to keep all of the frosting on one half,” she said. She was right. I worked the two cookie halves apart, being very careful that the filling stayed on one cookie and that the top cookie, the one I pulled off, didn’t crack. Natalie stacked eleven plain cookies on top of the other and did the same with the pile that still had frosting attached. When I also had a pile of eleven, we compared the plain cookies to see who had the cleanest separation between cookie and frosting. Once we decided who had won, we could start eating. “These cookies make your teeth black,” Natalie said, opening her mouth wide as she chewed. “That’s disgusting,” I said. “I know,” Natalie replied, giggling, and then taking a drink from the big glass of milk.
Afterward, we decide to investigate Natalie’s play house, which was set underneath several overgrown trees in the park-like yard. The play house was a miniature version of the real house on the exterior and, inside, it even had a little fire place. There were spider webs and dry leaves all over the floor. “Wouldn’t it be great if you had a little television in here, a smaller version of the television that you have inside?” I asked Natalie. “There’s no electricity,” she said. “I know, but if you had a television there would be, this isn’t real, it’s just an idea.” “In that case, yes, I think it would be neat.” “Your whole family could just move into the little house then,” I exclaimed. A few minutes later Natalie suggested that we go inside.
We went upstairs to the TV room. The shelves along the back wall had a few books on them and some pictures, black and white photos, still attached to each other in strips, that must have been taken when her parents were young. Mrs. Edwards was sitting in Mr. Edwards’ lap and she was smiling a big smile and looked very glamorous. With each photo their positions changed. In one they had their arms around each other, in one they were kissing on the lips, a stylized kiss, not a real one. Natalie turned on the television, which was set up on a small table. There was only one chair in the room, so we decided to both sit on the floor. We sat cross-legged on the soft white carpet and were happy to find that an episode of Gilligan’s Island was just beginning.
The door opened and Natalie’s mother walked in with a dazed expression on her face. It looked as if she were sleepwalking or in some kind of trance. “Mommy, I told you not to come in here,” Natalie said looking up at her mother. “But Natalie, you know how much I like to spend time with you,” Mrs. Edwards replied, leaning against the door jamb. “Yes, Mommy, but not now, I told you that already. Later.” Mrs. Edwards pursed her lips, tilted her blonde head to one side and made a pouting sound. “Mom – my,” Natalie said, stressing the word in the same way she had earlier. “Oh, Natalie, “she sighed coyly, her eyes staring at something very far away.
Natalie got up quickly and walked over to her mother. Whispering something in her ear, she took her by the shoulders and turned her around. Then, placing a hand on the middle of her back, she guided her through the door. Mrs. Edwards looked over at me sitting on the floor. “Goodbye,” she said, with a slight wave of her hand. “I said now!” Natalie commanded. And, having just barely pushed her outside, Natalie slammed the door and locked it.
“Do you like this show?” I asked, pretending not to have noticed what had just happened between Natalie and her mother. “It isn’t my favorite,” Natalie said as she sat back down on the carpet. “Maybe there’s something else on,” I suggested. “We only get two channels,” Natalie said, “and the other one is all news.” “I should go home,” I announced, knowing that I had a long walk ahead of me. At anyone else’s house, I would have been invited to stay for dinner. But at Natalie’s, no one was ever asked to stay because they didn’t eat until eight or nine o’clock, when her father got home.
We did not encounter any trace of Mrs. Edwards on our way through the kitchen to the side door, which was the only door that anyone ever used to enter and leave the house. Normally at that time of afternoon, you would smell something cooking in the kitchen. But the kitchen looked exactly as it had when we had entered, like some picture from a magazine. I walked passed the big houses which were set back from the road without encountering another person. Then, I crossed a big street and the houses got smaller and the noises louder. I saw people working in their gardens, heard shards of conversations and the sound of dishes being put away. Things became progressively noisier as I got closer to my house. And there, for the first time, I appreciated the sound that the traffic made as it drove by, sounding a little bit like the ocean, as my mother always said, when people asked if she minded living so close to the road.