The voices came again, drifting through brick walls, and Simon stopped typing once more, listened through the apartment’s silence. The third time today—at least the seventh time this week—and though he distinguished the steady undulations of two voices, one male, the other female, he could not tell where they were. Sometimes they seemed to be coming from the back wall, shared by the apartment next door although he knew Rob, forty-three and single, had moved out over a month ago. Other times, Simon swore they were overhead, though their apartment anchored the top floor, and in other moments, the voices came from beneath their bay window, overlooking the sea. Sometimes he kept typing when he heard them, elevating the volume on his stereo to drown out the sound, and other times he walked around the apartment, unsure where the voices were, high ceilings allowing sound to bounce in ways he still couldn’t determine.
Claire was in Hawaii now. She’d left in June, gone one month of three, to Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, near the town of Hilo, the churning center of Mauna Loa and the vast, unadulterated sea. She was in Hawaii, and Simon in their apartment alone, listening to voices that were not hers, not his—not theirs—and finishing a book that now seemed useless in the space between the mumbles he overheard, in the silence she’d left in the walls.
They had moved in eight months ago, an apartment by the sea, near the coast of San Diego where the hum of the waves would bring Claire some comfort, some resounding muse that would echo through the membranes of her mind, channeling tints and hues, sweeping through her synapses upon the buoy of sound. She had loved the high ceilings, having read they fostered creativity, that writers and artists alike would benefit from their heights, and Simon had written nearly three quarters of the book he hoped to finish during their first year there. But Claire hadn’t painted. Not one finished canvas. Though she’d sketched some, both pen-and-ink and graphite drawings, they were colorless versions of the bright canvases she’d once painted, purples and reds and deep golds and blues. Her palettes were dry, pencils barely used, and Simon didn’t acknowledge her reticence, the way she sat sometimes in headphones, conducting sound for color, lines of music for paint.
They had taken a trip down to Mexico, near the beginning of March, to stay on the beaches near Mazatlan. A glorious four days of crystalline sky, a sea breeze carried ashore on the crash of the waves—salt, mist and cobalt—and over the course of the days Simon watched Claire unfurl like a crocus, crawling out of herself onto the shore.
The sea turtles were hatching then, and on the third day they watched them scurry toward the waves, thousands of small leatherbacks fumbling across the sand. Simon and Claire sat on the boardwalk drinking Modelos in the mid-day sun, near a seaside tiki bar where a crowd of tourists had gathered, sipping mai tais from ceramic mugs, cheering the turtles onward.
Claire squinted out to sea, eyes reflecting the glint of sun.
“This is what I need.” She sipped her beer, set it down. She looked at him then, and Simon saw in her face some conclusion she’d come to, some plan she hadn’t disclosed.
“I’m thinking of taking some time away,” she said, eyes turned downward, face drawn and tight.
An eruption of cheers exploded from the bar, and Simon looked to see the tourists all clapping, watching as one small turtle hit the waves, slipped into the ocean.
“What do you mean?” he asked anyway, though he already knew.
“There are places by the beach, where you can go for a while to work.”
The crowd erupted again, clinking coconut-shaped mugs as another turtle disappeared beneath the waves.
“Residencies, maybe one month to three.” Claire took another sip of beer, looked away. “It’s nothing permanent, just time.”
“But the sea is right there, right outside our window,” Simon said, though his voice was low, already resigned. When he himself looked out their large bay window at home, he saw the urban coastline, feeble substitute, the sound of sea far away, drowned by the din of cars and trolley bells over crowded pedestrian streets. Simon knew Claire wasn’t happy, that she sensed something inauthentic about the city. Listening to her now, Simon regretted they’d ever chosen San Diego.
He heard her sigh. “You knew this, from the start.”
He had known, of course he had. What he didn’t know, only learned through time, was the delicate temperament of her condition, like a separate personality living inside of her, a small child with independent wants and needs.
After they’d first kissed on the bleachers of a deserted high school stadium, late at night after they’d walked back from having dinner at a Thai restaurant, she’d told him in an offhand way that she heard colors. No revelation, mentioned only in passing as they talked about scars, brief hospital stays, whether either of them believed in God, and she’d told him in one quick breath, after he said he’d had pneumonia in tenth grade.
He didn’t ask any more, didn’t want to make her uncomfortable, but after he’d walked her home and kissed her again at the door, hand barely touching her clothed waist where now it felt strange to not know the skin beneath, he’d gone home and looked the term up online, synesthesia, the first time he’d ever heard the word.
Simon exhaled a breath, stared into the ocean.
“I wish I could see what you see,” he said, and for the first time he froze inside, some tundra spanned the length of his body. Maybe he wasn’t like everyone else, the thousands of people who had, at one time or another, longed to view the world through their partner’s eyes, a prism for once refracting the world in lucid light.
Claire set her beer down and looked at him. Another cheer erupted from the bar.
“Look out there and I will show you.”
She pointed to the sea, surge of waves, their tips foaming like egg whites and said they sounded like the deep blue of certain irises, their crests like the shocks of yellow within the flower center. She pointed at the leatherbacks, small fins scraping through the sand, and said the sound rang out tones of green, over and over again as the turtles crept toward the sea, like wheatgrass sprouting in spring. She motioned toward the seagulls overhead, solemn cries like the light blues of rain, the way water streaked down the translucent surface of dirty window panes.
Simon strained his eyes—their corneas, their rods, cones and cells bending light into only images, not shades—and felt some crushing futility descend upon him, an inadequacy reflected off the gentle roil of waves.
That night they made love, their last night on the beach, and as the sounds of the ocean drifted in through their window Claire said she saw him in every band of the rainbow, spectrum streaming across the room. And though Simon didn’t want to think it, as she lay in the crevice of his arms, settled into sleep, he stared up at the ceiling and wondered why his voice couldn’t do the same.
Before she left, Claire had packed a small Amelia Earhart suitcase, full of only t-shirts and cutoffs, and one bright red swimsuit alongside her smattering of acrylics, brushes, watercolors. But at the bottom, Simon knew, tucked in beneath her pint-sized tank tops and the only canvas she could fit, lay a recording of his voice. They would talk by phone, but she’d made him record a message for her, to hear the tints of his voice when he’d gone to sleep, didn’t pick up his phone, or was simply out of range.
Creating the message had been awkward, knowing it would be replayed again and again, like the uncomfortable sound of an outgoing memo on the answering machine. But Simon did as she wanted, hid himself in their bathroom while Claire read on the couch out of earshot or judgment, mouth held close to the Dictaphone between his hands.
Claire hadn’t mentioned the recording again and Simon wondered, in the brief moments before his computer screen when he paused to take a breath, how a cassette was a viable substitute, some portable device with no breath, skin, blood. In her absence, Simon’s thoughts magnified like monsters, like shadow puppets behind muted screens, and when they began to crowd out all clarity, or when the muffled voices grew too loud, too intriguing to ignore, Simon pushed himself away from his computer and wrote. He wrote by hand. He knew the technology, webcams, the text messages and cell phones that could bridge an oceanic gap, but when he couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe the thickened air of their hollow apartment, he pulled his old Green Lantern stationery from the desk, pages he’d saved since grade school, and wrote Claire letters.
Sometimes they were long—detailed reports of the minutiae of his day, from the French roast he’d brewed at dawn to the bathroom break between reruns, when he’d noticed her long, wavy hairs still lining the tiled floor—and other times they were short, Rained today, found your blue sock in the dryer. But always, in every letter, he made up some elaborate means of communication, some equivalent of tin cans and twine intended as a dull joke, some form of contact long outmoded, but which he pretended was still remotely feasible. I will be standing on the shore, he wrote in his latest letter, with my binoculars pointed your way, the focus centered on your island.
Simon didn’t mention that even though he joked, though the ideas carried with them some plausibility, no matter how oblique, he couldn’t stop himself from acting on them. After he dropped the letter in the blue post box, sealed with honeybee stickers Claire had left, he walked the three blocks to the shore and stood at the seawall, binoculars pointed west, an approximation of where she was.
Somewhere outside the apartment walls, the voices were fighting. Simon couldn’t tell what about, though he struggled to hear, the way he did once or twice when he’d pulled up to a stoplight and noticed a silent argument in the adjacent car, two stern faces shouting mute obscenities, veins of their necks straining like cable wires.
Simon had finished writing for the day, had come to a natural stopping point with the conclusion of chapter sixteen—sixteen of how many chapters, he still wasn’t sure—of an in-depth look at the northern lights of 1859, the greatest display of the aurora borealis in recorded history. Simon stopped with his section on Boston, where the lights had apparently been so radiant that people could read newsprint outdoors, by skylight, at one o’clock in the morning. This deep into the project, Simon felt even more ridiculous they’d chosen San Diego, a city Claire had abandoned, a city that bore him no chance of ever experiencing such a night sky, the luster of which he’d still never seen.
Simon heated a can of vegetable soup and heard the voices over the San Diego news, their loudness shocking, wavering high over the meteorologist’s voice. Just as Chip Daniels swept his suited arm across the Pacific Ocean—the edge of the map, Simon could see, just reaching the coast of Hawaii—Simon heard several terse murmurs, their tones creeping across the octaves of an argument.
He muted the television’s sound, strained to hear, couldn’t tell what the voices said. By turns they were soft, then suddenly screaming, tennis match of volumes lobbied between two distinct speech patterns. Simon ate his soup to the sound, positive in moments he heard the muffled hint of crying, annoyed that he still couldn’t place where the voices were.
His cell phone rang just after eight that night, and without looking he knew who it was, she always called at that time, after she’d finished painting and before she ate dinner.
“Is the sun setting right now?” Claire asked, and Simon walked to the window though he already knew it was, watched the sun slowly slide down the coast, something they’d done together from the bay window but couldn’t now, Claire three hours behind, where the sky still burned.
She told him about her day, morning spent swimming off the shore of a black sand beach, afternoon devoted to painting, some large-scale project she’d been working on for two weeks, the colors fit for a Mardi Gras parade. The sounds of Hawaii were soothing, she said, but also alive—slow bubble of Mauna Loa in the distance, gentle hum of the sea, raucous cackling of parrots in acacia trees. The sounds filled her ears by day, and at night blended onto her canvas, paints swirling down a drain.
“Are you still hearing the voices?” she asked, and from so far away he heard her fascination too, imagined the two of them turning down the television, sliding against the walls together, trying to determine which wall concealed the sounds.
“They were fighting before you called, but now I can’t hear them.” He paused briefly again to listen, the angry intonations, subdued sobs no longer audible.
“Maybe it’s good I’m here,” Claire said, her laugh swelling across the ocean. “Listening to that, I’d paint nothing but black. Canvases of gloom.”
He laughed, too, a sound that hurt, and out the window the burning semicircle of sun slipped soundly into sea. Claire asked about his book, what he’d accomplished today, and he told her about Boston, reading lamp lighting the night sky. She asked for the chapter, to read in the morning while she ate honeydew melon, drank coffee, almost as if he were there, telling her firsthand what he’d written.
And though Claire said it as she hung up, kisses on your face, a code they’d developed to replace so many hollow proclamations, Simon hung up the phone with an uneasy feeling again, a ghost lurking softly behind a closet door.
He opened his desk drawer, pulled out the Green Lantern stationery and scrawled out a note. Short this time, Do you think the sun ever envies the moon, that it shrinks and expands while the sun lights the whole world? He didn’t even know what he meant, why he’d written the words, so he tore the stationery up. He instead grabbed a Tootsie Pop wrapper—a blue one with the chief aiming at the star, an icon they’d searched for together so many times, lucky sign like a penny—and rolled it into an empty beer bottle. He walked down to the shore, sky marbled behind the sunset, and threw the bottle into the water.
Simon woke with a start, though the apartment was silent. The morning sun sifted between the wooden slats of their blinds, and he realized he’d had a dream—that he was Claire, and Claire was him, that they’d been lighting off skyrockets in a field when his backfired, burn across his palm like a lifeline. His hand still tingled upon waking, needles prickling the length of his arm.
He poured cereal, mixed bran flakes with muesli, topped the bowl with grapes and milk. He pushed two grapes onto his spoon so they wouldn’t go down his throat alone, something he’d always done, something small, and even as he swallowed he reminded himself that this changed nothing, no microcosm for the whole world.
After breakfast Simon worked through the morning, not on his book but on web design, a freelance gig he’d secured over a year ago to allow him time to write. Mindless labor, really, lattice of codes and programming that droned through the morning until he broke for lunch.
The mail truck arrived mid-afternoon, perfect stopping point between lunch and dinner, a break in thought for a Coke, a walk downstairs, sometimes even a walk toward the shore. At two forty-five he heard the whir of the engine approach, extinguished just outside their bay window, sliding doors opening and shutting. Simon waited. He hated to bombard the mailman with eager waiting, like so many lonely people standing near their mailboxes. As soon as the engine puttered away, Simon walked down the stairs to their building’s front hallway, where usually nothing waited but bills and magazines.
When he opened their mailbox, a small yellow package lay inside. Claire had sent postcards in the past month, maybe one a week, and though those were all pinned to their refrigerator beneath magnets collected from dental offices and chain restaurants, she hadn’t sent a package. And even though she’d become something like bedrock to him, the span before he knew her a lifetime he could no longer remember, Simon’s heart still wavered in his chest, the manila envelope a firecracker in his hands.
Simon set the package on their kitchen counter, sliced a paring knife through the packaging tape and peered into the gap he’d made, contents settled to the bottom. A sea star the color of pumpkin. A small notecard she’d hand-painted herself, messy watercolors, two people before a multi-chrome sunset, hues streaked across the cardstock. A tiny cat in plastic packaging. In boxy, block print, she explained the cat submerged in water would grow to lifelike size, small friend to keep in her absence.
Simon unwrapped the yellow cat, but the sea star intrigued him most, due to the note Claire had included. Found this while snorkeling, the color reminded me of you. And though she qualified herself by declaring she hadn’t killed it, she’d found it fossilized in coral, her words bounced inside his brain, echoes through a cave. He set the sea star on the kitchen counter, tried to grasp the notion that she’d touched the rough edges only days before, her fingerprints still embedded somewhere inside coral ridges. And for the first time the border seemed malleable, distance no longer concrete, that if he mailed her one of their magnets—even the Pizza Hut magnet, it didn’t matter which one—there he would be on her fridge, Claire and her ocean on his counter.
Simon typed through the afternoon, four pages into chapter seventeen, and wrote Claire another letter, joking as he closed that he would stand atop the sea bluffs of La Jolla, an antenna in his hand to transmit and receive signals. After he dropped the letter in the mailbox, he hiked to the cliffs where he stood looking out to sea, one pea in a two-thousand mile pod, his television’s aerial in his hands.
The voices were silent that night, and though Simon expected to hear them ghost-like through the walls, he fell asleep with a book to his chest, calm quiet of their apartment at last engulfing him. But he awoke somewhere around three in the morning, lamp still on, and saw the window of his cell phone flash a missed call from Claire, forty-five minutes before.
He didn’t know why he hadn’t heard the ring, why she’d called at all. They’d talked earlier, just before he fell asleep, and she never called in the middle of the night unless something was wrong, like when she once drove home thinking an old Cadillac was following her, and another time two years before, when they still lived in separate apartments and she’d found her mudpuppy Periwinkle belly-up in his tank.
Simon sat up in bed, rubbed his face, set his disheveled book on the nightstand, pages bent with sleep. Claire hadn’t left a message, and when he called her back, her phone relayed straight to voicemail, power turned off. Though he told himself her phone was only out of range, Simon lay awake in the dark with his eyes on the ceiling, edges undefined in the absence of light. If ever there were moments when his thoughts became specters, ghosts finally descended from their corners of the room, it was moments like these, in the middle of the night, his breath the only sound, unmatched by the rise and fall of hers.
Simon knew Claire loved him—of course she did. He tried to believe this was all, the only thing standing between them and the stretch of ocean that separated their beds, but he knew in the dark there was something more. He couldn’t pinpoint it, perimeters too blurred in the shade of their bedroom, but he thought of the northern lights then, how brilliant they were to him, but how silent too, enough for him but not for her.
Simon felt the quiet then, palpable hush of the apartment, a lack of sound in all of San Diego. The silence spread a blank canvas, not even black, and he heard it like a train rattling through night, like the gray of puffed smoke.
As Simon ate his cereal, two grapes at a time, the voices floated through the brick walls, soothing tones like butter or honey, maybe the aftermath of fighting, gentle pitches making up. Simon held his breath suspended, listening, as he pushed two grapes onto his spoon. But as he pulled the spoon to his mouth, ears trained on the walls, the sea star caught his gaze, bright orange on the counter. He thought of Claire, missed call made new again. He sighed to obscure the tones. They moved, steady and soft behind some wall, but as Simon listened to them, he realized he no longer cared. They were where they were, apart, inadequate substitutes for a voice more tangible, more real. Simon looked at the sea star again, looked away. He went full days now without speaking to anyone, without one flick of tongue, without a strand of words thrown to bridge human connection. The voices didn’t fill his silence, didn’t make the quiet endurable. They didn’t even spike his interest, not as they once did, with Claire there to speculate, to guess, to hold an ear to every wall until they both gave up, tumbled into their own bed instead, lay there huddled close as the horizon swallowed the sun.
Simon turned on the television, tapped the button to raise the volume, drowned out the sound until he could no longer hear.
Though he took breaks on Saturdays to jog along the shore, buy apples from the farmer’s market, or stay in bed with Claire, this morning he wrote. He wrote of the moments in history—chapter seventeen—when scientists had channeled the northern lights’ currents to power telegraph lines, their energy potent enough to create communication, during moments when storms disrupted electricity. The notion held the greatest interest in Simon’s research, some possibility of creating currents where there had been none, some construction of contact through the most unexpected means. He hadn’t realized he’d written for hours when the phone rang, at noon but nine o’clock Claire’s time, when her sun began to rise.
“Sorry I called so late,” she said, voice disclosing no alarm, no sense of emergency that something had gone wrong. Simon sat back in his chair, exhaled the worry he’d held in his lungs, though he waited for an explanation still, some reason, some thread to grasp.
“The Dictaphone broke,” Claire said. “The Dictaphone broke, then my phone died from leaving it on, then I finally fell asleep. I thought you might call.”
“I did.” Simon hated the edge in his voice, the shortness of his words, though he knew his call wouldn’t have shown, all power drained from her phone.
“I just wanted to hear you.” Her voice sounded like that was enough, as though he would understand what she meant, six small words.
“Your voice, Simon.”
“But we talked earlier in the day.”
He heard her sigh, knew he’d missed something.
“I was painting,” she said. “Last night, I was painting. I thought you knew what it was for.”
He didn’t reply, didn’t know what she was saying at all.
“The recording, Simon. The one you recorded for me—it’s what I use, sometimes.” She hesitated, pulled in a breath. “It’s what I use when I paint.”
Simon blinked, felt he’d been slapped. And it was then that he pictured her, hunched over a color-streaked canvas with the windows open, the sound of sea drifting through the room, blending with the low drone of his voice, blurred with static, emanating from the Dictaphone she’d maybe placed on a shelf somewhere, somewhere near, someplace she could hear as she worked. He thought of the tones, what colors his voice divided into as they radiated from the small speaker, sounding like—what, exactly? He didn’t know, but for the first time, he saw that she did.
“We will move.” Simon closed his eyes. “We will move when you come home. Just come home.”
Claire didn’t speak, but he pictured her sitting in her room anyway, unsure where the conversation had turned, maybe not caring where it had, not even caring that the Dictaphone lay broken in her hands.
“Where?” she asked, low whisper, a hum.
Somewhere north, he thought. Wisconsin, or the Dakotas, maybe even someplace like Montana, where she could hear the calls of owls, echoes of canyons, and he could at last watch the lights for hours, stretched like highways across the night sky, without need of beer bottles or binoculars or aerials, not even the strained exertion of listening, but only fingertips against skin, blood against blood.
Before he heard himself speak, before he even qualified himself with coordinates or latitudes or preferences of climate, her voice reverberated the same, words matching like Memory cards, converging across the sea, as clear as if they were standing in the same room, inside the same walls, a sound the color of light.
Anne Valente is the author of the debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2016), and the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014).
Photo credit: Melissa McCracken, everwideningcicles.com