In silence, we all have our little phrases that we turn to. We umm and we uhh. We say, “I just don’t know,” and ask, “You know?” Part of me thinks this is how we try to fill the space. Silence is not merely the absence of sound, but the absence of distraction. We avoid it like we avoid going to the movies alone–on a Friday night. Lately, my little go-to phrase when things get quiet has been something along the lines of, “I just can’t do this anymore.”
True, it’s a far cry from umm. But it’s my own personal go-to, and I won’t abandon it.
And, besides, the truest truth is that I have no idea why I say it. Usually in my life, I’m not doing anything difficult. Usually I’m standing up, usually I’m walking around with a friend, or usually I’m making coffee at my job. I’m not usually fixing dislocated shoulders with my bare hands. I’m not usually snaking toilets for minimum wage. But still, I just can’t do this anymore.
On the other side of the weird spectrum, my cousin has this phrase she runs to in the silence: she says, “I’m just trying to live.” Though I think my go-to-line is strange, I think hers is quite charming. “I’m just trying to live.”
The thing is, aren’t we all just trying to live? And isn’t our attempt–to just try to live–the reason why we fill the silences?
Today, for big, dumb adult reasons, I was stuck sitting at a table in a cafe alone, unable to read or take out my phone or knit a scarf or anything else to pass the time. So, in one of those moments rare for my generation, I tried to look outside myself. (That’s a beautiful way to say that I people-watched like an absolute creep.)
Pretty quickly, I found the most interesting person in the cafe: a little boy with an uneven haircut and a red, puffy coat. He sat three tables away from me with his mother. Well… when I say sit I mean that he couldn’t keep his butt down in the chair for more than one second before he raised himself up on his knees (over and over again) to look at the crowd around him. He never said a word as he eyed the cafe unabashedly (much like myself), and he ate his grapes slowly, a quarter-grape bite at a time.
Soon, as fate would have it, since I was looking at him, and he was looking around the cafe, he discovered I was watching.
He was a kid, and I’m a twenty-three year old young woman. My hormones sometimes get the best of me–so when this kid finally saw me, I smiled and waved. This, of course, was the wrong move. This kid’s mother must have taught him about stranger danger–and so, my smiling and waving activated something dark and evil inside of him. His once-blank face instantly screwed up into something disgusted with the world around him, ready to give all the sass necessary to recover the situation to his benefit.
Under his shrill gaze, I caved and looked away and to the floor tiles, only glancing back up at Lil’ Demon to see if his attitude had improved any. (It didn’t.) (And it didn’t for a while.)
Eventually, while I waited, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. The boy’s mother, or caretaker–who knows?–stood up. Like there were magnets between them, the boy hopped out of his chair and looked up at his mother, who hot-dog-style folded the magazine she was reading and tucked it away in her purse.
Magic: the boy seemed to understand this meant that reading and grapes time was finally done, and that it was socially acceptable to speak.
For just a split second I was afraid when he began speaking that he would speak of the creepy girl sitting across the cafe who waved at him. Is it normal to wave at children you don’t know? Or are we living in a world where you can’t smile at a kid without being called a pedophile?
I looked at the floor tiles again, praying for the best but expecting the worst, and listened. It took me a few seconds of listening to be able to discern a few words (most of which were things like: mom, mom, mom, mom), but when his words finally did clear up a bit, I realized, at least, that the tone was happy.
I chanced it–what’s life if you take no risks?–and glanced up at the boy, to find him a completely different child. His grin was clearly visible from where I sat and all gaps where his adult teeth were still growing in. His arms were flailing, his head bent up at a drastic angle to look at his mother. And he was telling her a story.
This is when this occurred to me: this little boy has mastered silence on a level that I had not previously been aware existed. He ate grapes in the silence, all the while waiting to tell his mother a story. One might say he wasn’t exactly patient, thus he jumped and fidgeted in his seat, thus he spared not one second before spilling his whole story to her when she stood up.
But, really, patience is for those of us who are willing to wait to get what they want. And I’m not interested in being that person.
What I am interested in, though, is the silences between stories.
What if we were all that little boy, just in that moment? What if we filled silences with grapes? What if we were so sure that we would be heard–eventually–that we didn’t rush to speak?
What world would this be if we all spent more time looking around slowly?
And, more relevantly, what would my life be like if I spent more days at cafes, not touching my phone, and not trying to fill the silence?