“It’s so quiet in here,” Tom always said when he came through the door. “You’d swear the world was ending out there, with the waves crashin’ and the wind blowin’, but in here not a peep.”
I never answered, I only glanced at him and smiled. There was a lot to smile about back then. His head of thick blond hair, the smell of sweet lemon mint coming off him, those strong, reliable arms that used to carry me through each room of the house. I spent evenings just enjoying his presence, wondering how I got so lucky. I certainly didn’t deserve it.
When the policeman first came looking for Tom, he couldn’t believe either how quiet it was inside.
Before he reached the door, I braced myself for the knock. I’d spied him from the window, hidden behind the white, frilly curtains. I spent many hours there, absorbing the view of the dark blue-gray ocean, letting my thoughts ride the waves. Up and down.
The day I met Tom, when he came to install my computer. I stood there in my living room, between the sofa and the TV, scratchy carpet beneath my bare feet, and stared at him. It’d been a torrid day and the smell of rotting seaweed had invaded the small house, relentless and overbearing. I prayed he knew there was nothing I could do to get the smell out, not until the currents shifted.
“I’m sorry about the -” I began to say, wanting to assure him the stink wasn’t my fault.
But he spoke at the same time.
“Them seaweeds,” he said, and we laughed together.
The day he left for work without saying goodbye for the first time.
He’d moved in two years before, and we’d gradually got used to living under the same roof. Though far beyond our twenties, the experience was new to us both.
I stopped complaining about garbage and dirty laundry being strewn all over the floor, and he stopped asking me to go outside all the time.
By the time of our first big fight, he’d been going out alone every weekend. I treasured the hours of solitude and put them to good use.
“We haven’t gone anywhere in months,” he had said the night before. “Why do you hate people so much? It’s like you can’t function in society!”
I replied that, if that’s the case, it’s his bad luck, since I’m the only one who would have him.
“When did you last see him?” The policeman asked me.
“Had you argued?”
“Where would he have gone?”
I answered his questions as carefully as I could. I let my eyes slide only once to the basement door.
On our first date, Tom picked a small Italian restaurant, a ways out of town.
“I thought I’d be quiet,” he said as we shuffled awkwardly to our table, trying not to touch the other dinner-goers. Even when seated, the strangers boxed us in, making it difficult not to rub elbows. The clanking from the kitchen came through the walls, pounding on my eardrums; the din of conversation around us numbed my mind. I had nothing to say.
“I said I’m sorry for choosing this place. I thought no one in their right mind would drive out here just for spaghetti.” Yet here we were, not in our right mind. Tom hadn’t accounted for the local’s gorgeous view of the ocean, from high up on its cliff.
I had overdressed, and my skin itched and burned beneath my sweater. Heat rose up my neck, and I prayed he couldn’t spot the rivulets of sweat rolling down to my stomach. I was too embarrassed to look at Tom too much, so I rested my gaze on the large windows framing the waves and the rocks. I couldn’t hear the water.
When the waiter arrived to take our order, I had to visibly shift my chair to avoid touching him. I accidentally bumped into the woman sitting behind me and I feared she would make a scene. Inside, she prepared to raise her voice and insult me, wanted me to pay for the blouse she had ruined. The heat pulsating through my skin went up a few degrees, thinking how I should react. Her partner calmed her, and, outside, she said nothing.
Though my thoughts were shaking from the noise, the words, the half-spoken phrases, I almost made it through the main course. My mouth was so dry, everything tasted like cardboard, but I managed to push it down with a generous supply of wine. I figured dessert would be easier. But then the waiter floated by with a plate full of fish, letting the smell waft right to my nose as I was fighting to swallow a mouthful. I had to run outside.
After I finished throwing up, I saw Tom standing nearby, poised to intervene should it be necessary.
“I am so sorry,” he began, but I stopped him.
“It’s not your fault. I’m really bad with crowds and loud noises, always have been. It’s like I hear them in my-”
“Yeah, you probably get a lot of noise where you live.”
I stare at him for a second.
“You mean the sea? Oh, I don’t hear that.”
After the police officer left, I took his coffee cup to the kitchen and thoroughly washed it before putting it away. I vacuumed the hallway and the living room and fluffed up the sofa pillows. My eyes wandered more and more to the brown, wooden door keeping the stairway hidden.
A dense November fog had rolled onto the shore and terminated the day abruptly. By the time I finished tidying up, it was night outside and there was nothing left to do but go downstairs.
I stood in front of the door, letting the silence wash over me. The ocean raged outside, I knew, yet not a hint of sound could reach me. The tiny stars bobbing up and down far on the horizon, ships going out to sea, were conceivably the closest souls around me, yet there was an ocean between us.
The basement door was locked. I fiddled with the key in my pocket, not bearing to bring it out, pretending it was too heavy to lift.
Then I was in the stairwell, breathing in the humid air, not bothering to turn on the light.
He was already preparing to leave me when he started noticing.
The electrician didn’t answer his phone anymore, the traveling saleswoman never called to reschedule, people disappeared from our lives.
“Why won’t you let me go down there?” he asked.
“You can go wherever you like, for all I care,” I used to say.
“I can’t, because you keep the door locked.”
“I told you, I can’t find the key.”
He would want to call a locksmith; I would promise to search for the key one more time.
One day he altered course, he said, “It’s ‘cause you don’t want me living here isn’t it? In your house? You want to keep a space to yourself where you can lock me out, don’t you?”
He was right, of course. I wanted him to stay forever, close, where I could touch him, smell and taste him, but that couldn’t happen if he went beyond that door.
When I came home and found his clothes and tools packed in cardboard boxes, I knew I had only one option to keep here.
I pretended to find the key, to go downstairs, to have found a leak in the wall behind some shelves. To call for help. He trundled down the steps, and I wonder if he registered what he saw as he crossed the space. The saws, the pliers, the axe. The body bags? Hadn’t he wondered why the house was sound proof?
There was never any smell. I prided myself on that.
It was easy to run upstairs and bolt the door behind me. It was hard to bear the knocks, the kicks, the yells. I heard the yelling, the screaming and the begging as I always do, both from outside my head and from within.
The outside noise stopped three days ago.
The inside one took longer to languish. As I spoke to the officer, the sound finally subsided and, once I was alone, my mind buzzed with sweet silence.
All I must do now is clean, and find a place for my quiet Tom to rest.