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On Complete Silence

I originally wrote this for a non-fiction essay competition. I didn't win so I'm just going to post it here. Enjoy x


I brush my teeth with wireless headphones on my head. I try to blast something meaningful into my ears but noise in any capacity is what I need here. The way I know to stop brushing is when my electric toothbrush buzzes three times against my jaw bone. That’s how I know how long two minutes are. When I get into my pyjamas, I have to remove the headphones to get my shirt off my head, or I’ll get stuck. In that silence, my ears buzz for a good 5 seconds before I can hear what silence is. I keep the window open in summer because all of my skin sticks together, and tonight, I can hear bats flying outside, a very small Doppler effect of squeaking. I can still hear the music in my headphones because I didn’t disconnect them. I haven’t decided whether to stop listening to music whilst brushing my hair and then I remember where my hair is. I disconnect my headphones. I pick my book up to read. I put my book down after my brain insists on having a debate with an imaginary bigot. I’m so loud and articulate in my head. I can’t concentrate on my book. I open Twitter on my phone and use my earphones this time to listen to music. It’s quiet and soothing this time, so I convince myself that it’s fine to listen to before bed. I have to be up in the morning at seven, so I go to bed at midnight. I’ve come to terms with getting under eight hours sleep. This is extended by not-quite-tinnitus and my thoughts cycling through the day’s events and various impossible romantic fantasies. Tonight, I’m being held by a faceless partner as they tell me it’s okay that I don’t like my body right now and it’s okay that I don’t like compliments and I thank them for not complimenting and then I’m woken up by my alarm.

Silence feels interrupted and not real. I try to capture it and I’m reminded of a university seminar when a literature tutor was discussing form and made us sit through John Cage’s 4′33″. I also feel very smart for remembering it, recognising it when people reference it and understanding what it means. True silence exists in human breath and shuffling in one’s seat. What an abject horror the absence of human presence is. No one wants to think about themselves not existing but it’s truly worse for no one to exist. To not watch as someone listens to the rain’s fingernails tap on the windows. To not hear the boiler yank up its trouser for a good 15 seconds before sitting still in place. The things we made make noises outside of us and we made them like that because there is nothing more necessary than ambience. 

And I hate white noise, how it crunches in my ears. But someone created that too. And people wanted sound before they knew how to create it, which is why I had to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for a film class to see what the monsters had to be in the 1920s before we had nuclear bombs. When they had silence, they had to play a jaunty piano tune in its place, or the horror of the shadows moving on the screen would have caused the audience members to never sleep again. And I think about how silly that is until I remember how long it takes me to sleep and how the shadows in my life are trying to get on the bus whilst being a self-diagnosed hypochondriac, how they’re terrified that the bus driver doesn’t like them because he didn’t smile this morning.

I escape the quiet moments on purpose because my thoughts are about me and no one else. Self-reflection becomes self-flagellation with a superiority complex. I can scoop my brain out with a spoon, or get used to living with myself. I’ve never performed brain surgery with kitchen utensils before so I go with the latter. Tonight, I brush my teeth in silence. I feel and hear the buzz in my mouth this time. I notice how the fan in the bathroom is a similar volume and intensity as the boiler during winter. I have the window open and there’s no wind so maybe there’s complete silence. No. There’s a siren in the distance. I’m unsure if someone has committed a crime or cut themselves open. It goes out of earshot eventually and I realise I’m entirely unsure of how long two minutes is. I can usually measure it with the length of a song but without that, I’m convinced that I’ve been brushing my teeth for a quarter of an hour. I’ve yet to do mouthwash and my housemate needs to use the bathroom after me, so brushing for that long is absurd. The brush buzzes three times and I now know that two minutes is actually two minutes and not fifteen minutes. I can get undressed without an interruption on my head. The bats are absent tonight. I pick up my book and my brain debates for a short while but the words take on my voice eventually and I can finish the chapter I’ve been sitting on for two weeks. I read until my eyes unfocus and this seems to align with when I need to be asleep. I close my eyes in the dark. There is a quiet, slow breeze outside slicing through the heat. My fantasy tonight is the same except this time I can hear my imaginary partner shuffle in bed as they pull my body close to their chest.


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