by Adelia Gregory
“Can you hear that?” she said. “Tell me about the noise in my ears.” I told her that white noise was just a cacophony of random sounds. I also said it contains all the frequencies across the audible sound spectrum; that tinnitus causes people to imagine a shrill ringing in their heads when none exists. Then, I told her the Milky Way was nearly fourteen billion years old and one of the few places where you couldn’t hear anything. The manager in the corner of the room caught my eye. He watched us all without comment—like the kind of camera a rich person might stick above their garage. I imagined a bored billionaire playing the recording on an endless loop. “Did you forget?” she said, noticing me staring. “Things are tense. Robberies and all.” I was unsure if she wanted me to go on with my list, but she nodded, prompting me. I continued. Was she aware that Johnny Depp admitted to cutting off his own finger? Yes, really. That he now claims his ex-wife was the one who severed it? That the world’s once-wealthiest man sold off all his homes just to make a point? “I can’t believe it,” she said. “I just can’t believe it.” I could. I’ve always known ordinary people could become extraordinary in the right circumstances. “Say, get a hold of this,” I said. “I bet you didn’t know that one of the largest tigresses in recent memory was also one of the best tiger mothers. That she’s one of the few with cubs who stayed in touch after they left, which is rare in the feline world? And that shortly afterward, she was spotted roaming through the Pench Tiger Reserve. She left her cubs in an area rich with food to eat, so it was as if she had the whole thing figured out.” “Does anyone?” she said. “I mean, I need a drink.” “I could tell you more about the tiger mom, if you like,” I said. “What happened to her first litter, that kind of thing? If you can stomach it without tearing up.” “I only want to hear happy stories where life is simple, and everything works out,” she says and downs her overpriced drink in a few swallows.
We’re so out of place here with our cheap, trendy clothes off the clearance rack at Target. All around us, the red soles aren’t knock-offs. I keep reaching down to adjust the strap of my wedges to ensure my manicured toes don’t fall out. She’s accustomed to her gladiator sandals, keeping the leather laces tight enough, so she doesn’t have to think about them. Living here for the past four years means she’s used to summering. We nickname this bar the Cocktail Lounge. It’s one of the best for people-watching on the Sunset Strip, even with the twenty-dollar drinks. Sitting together, it doesn’t feel like I haven’t visited her in months. Whenever I used to fly in for a weekend, and we felt especially poor, we’d come here and splurge on a drink or two. This is the California people dream of, even if the area code is four-two-four, not three-two-three, like all the Hollywood numbers.
A stranger at the bar spots our table and comes over to us. My friend introduces me as her childhood shadow, and I’m exposed for a second. Last year, the stranger and my friend knew each other while both waitressing at the same fancy bar down the street, where silver-haired gentlemen almost always tipped well. “I’ve told you how, in high school, we used to streak across the parking lot of my apartment complex nude, save for a towel.” “And sometimes, the towel would slip,” I say. “Real best friends,” the stranger says. If that girl knew enough, she might ask why I left my friend in this dreamland. But she doesn’t say anything, maybe because she doesn’t know the whole story. The truth is almost always more complicated than it seems. It reminds me of something I’d heard from my other friend, the biologist. Just a few weeks ago, he’d returned to the states after a three-month fellowship at the Pench Tiger Reserve in India. He would share these economical little tales about zooming around the park in a buggy, snapping pictures of the elusive tigers. Taking measurements and trailing movements—that sort of thing. One day, in particular, he saw this hulking male tiger tracking through the golden underbrush. Before long, the male had found a tigress in heat nearby. Tigers are solitary, so the first encounter between a male and a female is a snarling match. There was much snapping. It would take my friend and his crew days to capture the tigers’ courtship, how the two would come together, only to part again right after, until they earned each other’s trust. The pair would come whisker to whisker, and they still snarled sometimes. After the female got through her seduction routine, grooming, nuzzling, licking—rubbing along his sides—the male watched while she, the tigress, lay on her belly. Copulation requires the female to adopt a vulnerable position. That’s what my friend explained—and he liked using big words like “copulation” in casual conversation. And once he got to the part about the neck biting, I sat up straight, phone to my ear. He said that the male then lets out a loud cry and grabs ahold of the loose skin around the female’s neck, ensuring the correct angle at the fateful moment. But if things go wrong, the tigress ends up with much worse than a bite. In other words, instant death. Sometimes, love can feel that way if you aren’t lucky.
My friend titters about the stranger once she leaves our table. There’s something about how my friend moves in her chair, shifting her curled locks off her shoulders. She’s momentarily preoccupied without asking me to do it, so I oblige. “I’m thinking about calling him,” she says. “It came to me while talking just now. What if I just call him and tell him to go to the store? Send him to Walmart, and I pack whatever I can fit in my car and go. That way, I can follow you back to Napa.” She picks up her phone as if weighing it, and her face looks grim, still sober. Then, she lifts the receiver to her ear. “Hey,” she says. “Can you hear me?” For a moment, I don’t know if she’s practicing or joking. But another round of drinks arrives, fizzing, and her face turns to marble again. She hangs up and texts him, and I let her. I say nothing. When she catches me staring for the second time that day, she says, “A practice run. I just sent him to Walmart, you know, to make sure I can do it when I’m ready to leave. Since you won’t help me do it.” No, I won’t meddle. “Anything else?” she says to me. At first, I’m not sure I understand. But when I think about it, yes, of course, I do have something else. So, I’ll keep talking about how the universe used to be bright orange as wavelengths cooled and stretched. My biologist friend described it as millions or billions of lightbulbs before the lights turned off, but I don’t mention him, only that the darkness in space is actually static, filling the vacant spots. She interrupts me. “That’s why the sky is so black? Lights out? Seriously?” I tell her everything eventually burns out, even as I do my best to keep it light.
I showed her goofy cat videos I knew she’d like, and she laughed a little. The sound has the feeling of a mother tongue, natural, never bumpy, like she doesn’t have to hide from me, and I grasp onto it the way a person might a baby they’ve never held before. “What about that tiger mother?” she says. Her second drink is gone, and she orders another. “You ever wonder if she looked at those scientists spying on her and told them to piss off? To stop watching her like she’s some fragile plaything for her mate?” I sip my drink.She says, “What about a story of tiger love?” She obviously remembers that time I mentioned how continuing the species is a matter of life and death with tigers. One bite, and it’s over—all for a good lay. I try to share something funny like that with her, but she’s not in the mood. “What about lovebirds?” I say. “These little parrots mate for life, for fifteen whole years. I think of a couple this girl posted on Twitter. At first, you know, they were opposites. The guy’s a chatterbox, the life of the party. The girl, she’s got that goth thing going on. That’s what her owner calls her—the goth girlfriend. A year later, those two are expecting.” “Finally,” she says, “something with a decent ending.”
I grow suspicious after ten minutes have passed. It’s a busy place, so there’s sometimes a line outside the restroom, but I’ve texted my friend, and no response. So, I dodge a few waitresses with food and drink trays, surprised when I make it to the other side of the place, and there’s no line for the restroom. All the stalls are unoccupied, save for one. I call for her when I recognize her shoes. There’s another pair in there, and that’s when I hear an odd sound, like someone gasping for breath.
Nobody ever knows when life will come out of nowhere and pull the rug from their feet. People walk along yellow trails every day, and some of them will get bitten by ticks, for instance, or watch Cessnas falling out of the sky. Yet, we still live. We keep going somehow, even when we have no idea how to do so. I think of that nowadays when I’m sitting in a Walmart parking lot somewhere in Napa, smelling the despair around me, and all I want to do is scream. Those nights, I place my fist in my mouth and bite down until my teeth hurt. I sometimes return to that parking lot after hiking those yellow trails, the ones in the Napa Valley postcards. I always pause to check for ticks, those lurking dangers you can never see until it’s too late and you’re clawing them out of your blown-up skin. Then, the blood comes pounding back, ugly and fierce, and your fingers swell with so much feeling that has nowhere else to go but remain in place.
“Don’t look up,” she once giggled. “The planes will fall on our heads. Don’t look! Don’t look!” “I won’t look; I won’t look,” I said back and fixed my towel around me. She cracked the black gates to the pool and found the safety of the hot tub gazebo, shielding herself from the wandering stares of any night owls on the second or third floors. But the complex buildings, like the pool, were quiet. She flipped the switch, and we both listened to the jets gurgle a bit as we passed a handle back and forth and talked about life, boys, and college; nothing in particular until I brought up the tourist plane that had fallen out of the sky earlier that day. It’d crashed into one of the wineries around town where properties like this one cost millions and where nobody without grandparents could afford to live. But that was beside the point. We focused on what it must have felt like flying that plane. We didn’t cry that day—we just talked. Finally, I stopped soaking my feet and dropped my towel. Anticipating the cold to come, I yelped like a newborn animal and leaped into the water, pool lights drifting before my eyes. I would sometimes imagine drowning as the air escaped my lungs. Leaves landed in the blue and sank with me. I wondered, then, who would come to my funeral. I’d try to picture the news crews with their cameras in front of my family, and my friends, their mouths on the foam of the microphones, sharing stories for old times’ sake. I couldn’t say that anymore—for old times’ sake. It’s your fault, she might say. You stayed away.
I stayed by her restroom stall for a long time, pleading with her to come out. I didn’t know what was going on, but these situations sometimes turned out better than expected. As it turned out, the vastness of whatever had opened inside her was too vast. I stood with my hands on the cool stall, thinking of the Morning Glory Spillway that would appear after a downpour. Unsuspecting, people go on with their lives until the rains have nowhere to go, and the reservoir drain hole opens up like a gaping mouth. The water swirls around in a spinning vortex, and people stop to watch, taking pictures. Some remember the girl who got sucked inside in 1997. Others call it a portal to hell or a glory hole, and I tell her that as I stand outside her stall, waiting for her. “Can you believe that?” I wanted her to say yes, I do, or no, I don’t. But she said, “I just can’t feel anything.” The stranger won’t let me open the door when I try. I hear a girl in there, dabbing my friend’s cheeks, offering reassurances. I wait and think of this dream where I’m flying copilot. My friend’s in the back, in the jump seat behind the cockpit, hollering like a kid again, and somebody is guiding the thing. I’m just steadying it. Still, we’re flying, and her hand lands on my shoulder, easy, light. It’s like breathing. One afternoon, I had that dream again and resisted the temptation to face her.
She hiked with me once in the rain. That time, everything had turned green, teeming with life. When we came back, I noticed something tight, pinching my abdomen. I stripped off my layers and stood in front of the brightness of her restroom mirror, where she knew what to do. How to angle the tweezers to shimmy the head out. She trusted herself to do it right without a lighter. Even so, I could barely look down—a sick panic about Lyme disease. But she only laughed at me like she was a pro, my fingers curling when she ripped it out. Now, when the stall door opens and the stranger leaves, I see my friend sitting, fully clothed, on the toilet, telling me what she must have said to the stranger. My friend mumbles that the girl went to grab water, but I lock the door behind us, so the stranger can’t come back in. I turn to her on the toilet. And I don’t try to rationalize or deny or bargain when she says her boyfriend was in the Walmart parking lot in Burbank when it happened. There was nothing they could do. When the Cessna smoked a vineyard, the local news station broadcasted pictures of ten holidaymakers, a pilot, and a copilot. They call it an accident, a tragedy, because it makes more sense that way, as a statistic. The odds of dying in a plane crash are one in nine thousand eight hundred twenty-one. A number—it’s just a number. One in three hundred and fifteen lifetime chance of death from gun violence. Another number. One in eleven thousand one hundred and twenty-five chance of dying in a mass shooting. Just a number, I tell myself.
I help her up, and she slumps against my shoulder as we walk to the front. Our waitress tells us that the stranger has already paid, and I nod at her, sitting at the same spot at the bar. She nods back like it’s some code only we know. I don’t know if I’ll ever see that girl again, but I have bigger things on my mind as we head out. My friend gets in the passenger seat of her car and passes me the keys. I no longer remember this city, but I can drive just fine with directions. I get us back to her apartment. She lays down on the bed, and I pull a blanket over her. Her body is a coil that instantly compresses, hunched in the fetal position as snot makes her sound congested. Then, like a person in a trance, she asks me to go to the scene. Alone. As usual, it’s never anything like the movies. There are no handsome paramedics, no loud sirens; nothing but red and blue spilling over the asphalt. Cars are parked sloppily, and people huddle next to the yellow tape, hands over mouths. There’s the buzz of voices over police radios, numbers scattered around, white sheets over human-like forms. One of the sheets has a splatter, and I turn to go. I can’t tell her anything I’ve just seen. A woman standing nearby yells, “He isn’t dead!” A couple of people point to a twitching white sheet. The edge of a man’s head had fallen out of the cloth as he’d thrashed and sucked in air—the things you aren’t supposed to see. An officer yanks the fabric off as others dispatch information about the live footage. Still, no one administers chest compressions. A glut of onlookers has gathered around the tape. They rub arms, blabber, slur into their phones, gasp and moan. When the police shoo them away, they take a step back but stay just a few feet away.All of this animated grief makes me sick. Do we rehearse trauma to subvert it or because we have no choice, no other way to be? The man under the sheet isn’t the one I’d hoped for. It’s someone else’s boyfriend, husband, son, father, neighbor, roommate, or friend. And I don’t know how to explain what I’ve seen to her, how cheated I feel. I wasn’t supposed to look.The people around me keep gawking. He isn’t dead, they say, but the police drag their feet. I can’t find my own footing, either, as if the asphalt has shifted underneath me. I think of how the universe once was orange, but all I can see is red.
Her apartment was silent when I got back and found I’d locked the front door. The key is still under the mat where I left it. She lay on the bed in the same place, but her tears no longer flowed. Instead, her eyes were wide and alert. “The mail came,” she said. It’s well-known in the group chat we have going with a couple of hometown girls that my friend is pals with the mailman. “What did he say?” “Oh, I didn’t get up, but I saw him drop the mail and look at the door like he’d forgotten to give me something.” She stopped. “What did you see?” I said nothing and settled on the comforter’s edge like my dad used to when I was in trouble. He’d reach over and squeeze my foot, and I resisted the urge to do that now as I sat next to her and told her the truth about the Walmart scene. I didn’t see him. She changed the subject. “You know, I was thinking about space,” she said, slowing down. “What he was like to you.” “What do you want to hear?” “Tell me more about your chats. Everything.” She was hungry for another fact or two; a peek into my world while I was away. Either way, I humored her. “He would call me in the evenings and tell me how it was at Pench, how many tigers he saw, that kind of thing. His nickname for me was sunflower or sunny, sometimes.” I realized that detail would hurt her, and I didn’t bother to acknowledge it.“Remember that first tiger litter I mentioned earlier? Well, one time, he called and said the cubs had gotten pneumonia and died, all three of them. And I guess it broke him because he was crying when he told me.” “Like he’d lost one of his own?” I’d never considered that his research subjects would become that dear to him, but it made sense. Once the cubs died, he stopped calling for a week, and his magazines kept piling up at my place because we weren’t discussing them. I still haven’t bothered to cancel the subscription. In fact, I think I have a copy I’ve been lugging around at the bottom of my purse. I fetch it and return to the foot of her bed with the magazine in my lap, where I read some of the wacky article titles I might’ve shared with him: “Study suggests your furry friend’s ‘puppy dog eyes’ are a manipulation tactic” or “Genetically modified mosquitos are all the buzz.” There’s also “Billions of seventeen-year-old cicadas are ready to party.” When I looked up, she was soundless with her face in her hands.
She needed to close her eyes for a bit, so I walked down to the store, where I thought about the biologist. My friend and I had always seen him differently, which was the hardest part—the calls she’d ignore and the ones I’d wait for. No matter what, he’d always launch into stories about those tigers, the ones my friend never listened to. He’d do it even though he knew my research was all astronomy, not biology. Maybe, I was just another reflective surface, a willing ear. I buy a pack of diet Lipton, microwavable popcorn, a few bottles of wine, and her favorite dark chocolate mint patties. We lay next to each other, a mountain of pillows and blankets all around us as discarded York wrappers collected in the pockets of the comforter. I’d yanked down the blinds, and she had long since turned off her phone. Our movie choice was an oldie from 1989, one sure to take her mind off things. We always used to watch old films together. We even joined a social club for cinema buffs a few years ago while I was still in my program, the one not far from the Strip. My friend wasn’t in graduate school, but she figured it could be fun to tag along for a meeting—that was where we met the biologist. He liked comedies, big cats, and my pretty friend. The main character in the movie we’re watching has a meltdown, and she laughs, seeming to forget me and everything else for a while.#
I spent the night next to her, even though I forgot to pack my night guard and hardly slept at all. When I caught snatches of rest, I dreamed I was the pilot, flying us over rows and rows of ancient vines. They blurred into streaks on an earthen canvas. In my peripheral, she perched in copilot as if ready to skydive. Try as I might, I couldn’t get it out of my head—how underqualified I was to steer this thing. Just the thought of it paralyzed me, and my feet wouldn’t reach the pedals, my hands slipping off the yoke. I forgot how to do the very thing I was doing. My friend kept signaling like she was trying to say something to me, but I couldn’t hear anything. All I could register was how the plane was in such a vulnerable position, a true nosedive, heading back to its maker and taking us with it.#
At the police’s urging, she waited until his body was transferred to a funeral home before going for a viewing. I had patiently remained with her for the past two days while she awaited the forensic examinations. Why, though, I didn’t know. I couldn’t grasp how a bunch of graphic details about entry and exit wounds would make anything better. The freak nature of his passing definitely wouldn’t make her feel any less guilty for wanting to leave him or for loving him less than he loved her. None of that would change, but I stuck around, anyway, waiting for something to happen. We microwaved bags of popcorn and drank iced Lipton for breakfast. We drank our coffees black because creamer didn’t sit well and cooked our eggs a dozen different ways for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And when the endless stream of television dulled us too much, we shut it off and sat in silence, drinking cheap wine, each in our own thoughts. Then, she got the call about the viewing. She told me that her mom would fly in later that evening. His parents would be on their way tomorrow, and I nodded. It was obvious to me that I had no place there. “I’m leaving,” I said. “I just can’t be here anymore.” A few blinks, and her surprise turned to anger. “I thought you were spending the week.” People make so many promises in a lifetime—I couldn’t understand why we all did it, this muscular thing of lifting people’s hopes. It just left hollowness where something good had once been. Also, I wouldn’t share him with her yet again. “I know, but it’s no use. I can’t look at his body. I just can’t. I can’t crash someplace.” “What?” she asked, her tone sharp. Her eyes were steel rods, ready to ram a confession out of me. But once spoken, it was the kind of thing you’d never live down by any measurement. “Nothing,” I said, thinking of planes in vineyards. “Never mind.”#
We didn’t talk for a while. I told myself I’d done what I could whenever I wanted to pick up the phone just to hear my friend’s voice. But my pride ate at me. This one small thing I couldn’t do. As the hours become days and the days, weeks, I wonder why I don’t think of tigers or space or ticks or hikes or flights or old movies. Static bounces at the edge of my eyes as if imprinted there; white noise clings to my ears. So many frequencies across the galaxy of sound, and all I hear is this. An empty ringing.#
On the morning that she scattered his ashes, I slept in. It was a weekend, but she didn’t invite me, so I didn’t come. Instead, she texted me a video of her standing with his mother, holding each other, as his mother grabbed a pinch-full of ashes and sprinkled them over the Pacific. But the thing is, he would’ve never wanted that. Maybe, something like a zoo would’ve been better. They could have scattered him next to a tiger exhibit—someplace close to what made life so special.#
I remember those last few calls the clearest. I’d sit in my apartment in the evenings and wait until the vibrations sent a tremor through the kitchen table. With twelve and a half hours apart, we had to plan it. He’d call during the morning in Pench—nighttime for me. We’d often chat for hours about his research, sometimes about mine. This one night, we discussed the article I’d emailed him about the color of space. It was intriguing, for sure. But he wanted to talk about how so little sound there was out there, in the abyss. We both knew it was true because of a few facts about particles and mediums. But the absence of something as elemental as noise chilled him—made him feel space’s sheer, unrecognizable inhumanity. That was why he was a biologist, not an astronomer or a physicist. And I’d laughed, calling him sentimental and an undercover poet. #
Nowadays, I think of how cosmic catastrophes—solar flares, supernovae, black hole mergers—go silent before anyone ever hears them. But the cosmos are changing: leaking noise we can finally detect. Gravitational waves are one of the few things that can travel through the cosmological fabric unfettered, so they’re microphones for the universe. That seems beautiful to me—that something so vast and infinite as space might have a sound. I imagine the faint tinkle of supermassive black holes feasting on pure energy, on what can’t die. Once immune to our searching, wave upon wave, now filled with the chatter of life.
And thanks to a lab on the East Coast, we’re listening to the universe for the very first time. I just wish I could tell her about it.