The unsettling beauty in silence

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Emily Filkin/Staff

I knew I was doing it again. As I opened my mouth, I could feel myself betraying our tacit agreement, but the words tumbled out unabashedly. We had been sitting in his room, talking every now and then, but mostly doing what had become so common when we were together. We were coexisting, soaking in the presence of one another silently and placidly. Often, on nights like those, when the sudden stillness of the quiet began screaming in my ears, I would start rambling about the first topic that popped into my overflowing mind. I would release the floodgates and out would pour a deluge of thoughts and breathless questions that I had been pondering all day.

He never seemed to mind, but I always saw it somewhere in his kind, dark eyes. That slight hint of amusement, never patronizing but still capable of making me feel childish. Like always, he would listen to what I had to say with a devoted curiosity, but his response was often the same. He would give me an earnest, compassionate smile or a resolute head nod that conveyed just how profoundly he understood. Occasionally, he would follow up with a full answer and we would have a discussion, but always with such brevity that I started to wonder if everything in life couldn’t be boiled down to such concise terms.

His unassuming disposition was the first thing I noticed about him. In fact, it was the only thing I remember noticing initially at all. It was one of those 2 a.m. Wednesday nights that can only happen in college. We were packed like sardines into an overcrowded dorm room, with music drumming rhythmically from someone’s cheap speakers. We chased time by passing around a bottle of “Two Buck Chuck,” and we chased the wine by laughing too loudly at a story to be forgotten by morning. Above the drone of the speakers, voices competed to be heard. Mindless babble filled the early hours of morning, a cacophony of sound created as a substitute for the pauses in the songs. Then, suddenly, a proclamation from a delighted drunk could be heard above the clamor.

“Cheers to the host!”

Everyone raised their empty fists in playful mockery to a thin, dark-eyed German sitting in the corner of the room.

I wish I could say I was instantly attracted, that something about his charming boyishness drew me to him immediately, or at the very least intrigued me. But like he would later so candidly tell me when I asked him about his initial impression of me, I could make up something romantic, but that would be a lie. The honest truth was that he was just a thin, dark-eyed German I had only noticed because he was the one person in the room not adding to the chorus of voices. I barely heard him speak a word the whole evening and it was his quietness that struck me.

“We were coexisting, soaking in the presence of one another silently and placidly.”

As the night drew to an end, the crowd thinned and the noise had all but completely died until it was only the two of us sitting alone in silence. The space between he, perched on his plastic desk chair, and I, clumsily sprawled out on his unmade bed, abruptly became an unwelcome abyss. As I stood to leave, I looked up and our eyes met. He leaned forward in his seat and kissed me softly on the lips. What surprised me most wasn’t his sudden forwardness, but the way I leaned back into him so curiously and eagerly.

I woke the next morning with a headache and a mind full of regrets. Maybe there was something attractive about his unpresuming disposition, but he was purely not my type. He seemed uncomplicated and almost ignorantly kind. Reserved and easily unnoticeable in a crowded room, he had a gentle face that rested behind his square-framed glasses. He fell far outside the bounds of my past romantic endeavors, all of which had been with boys so eager to hear the sound of their own voices, with too much to say, overflowing with personality but wildly unavailable. I was attracted to intellect, to guys who were passionate and unafraid to tell the world. I was always chasing men with plenty of words on politics, science, religion and art, but never any who liked to talk about relationships definitely none who had anything to say about love.

So I laughed it off casually as drunken happenstance. He, however, did not catch the memo. Though he was quiet, he was anything but shy, and in the following weeks, he pursued me with an understated straightforwardness I had never before experienced. Perhaps it was initially that I was flattered, or perhaps it was that I found his perseverance endearing. Whatever it may have been, before I knew it, the kind of late-night, slightly drunken meetup that catalyzed our relationship became a regular occurrence.

His placidity, however, continued to disarm me. I had entered uncharted dating territory. While I had admittedly little to compare this new relationship to, in my past relationships, whether it was on the first date or the fifteenth, there was always a controlled ebb and flow to the conversation but rarely a pause long enough to be considered uncomfortable. If one conversation hit a deadend, one of us would instantaneously almost urgently initiate a new one. I viewed conversation as a necessary and artful volley between myself and the man of my affection, what a friend of mine whimsically coined the “verbal joust.” The art of conversation was delicate, more effortless with some guys than with others, but nonetheless a game that always involved a degree of witty banter and frequent, angsty discussions about the meaning of our existential lives.

With him, it was different. With him, though our conversations ebbed and flowed, when one ebbed he never seemed desperate to artificially propel another one forward. He was daringly unafraid of the kind of silence that made me squirm. Like much of what he did, his restraint was never part of an image or an attempt to be mysterious. He simply embraced the absence of dialogue as an unavoidable situation. He let it be.

When I asked him why he was so comfortable just sitting for so long in silence during a conversation, often with someone he didn’t even know, he shrugged.

“I don’t like small talk.”

“But don’t you feel awkward? When there’s a lull in the conversation don’t you ever feel like it’s natural to want to fill it?”

“You’re so American. Americans love to hear themselves talk, but they never really listen.”

The response was so him. Sober and honest, but without the slightest hint of malice. I had learned to laugh off his frequent, yet harmless critiques of Americans, but something in this comment struck me. Why was I so alarmed by the natural breaks in conversation? What was it in silence that made me so excruciatingly ill at ease? Perhaps he was right it could partially be attributed to my American acculturation. Maybe it was because of my generation’s affinity for around-the-clock communication. But I was positive there was more.

Regardless of his open embracement of reticence, I found myself falling for him deeply. While we may have approached the art of conversation-making differently, I felt happy simply being in his presence. He was humble and mature, adventurous and easygoing, and he had a quiet, unpretentious confidence that I came to adore. Although in true millennial fashion we never labeled it, I knew that it was the most stable relationship I had ever been in. But no matter how much I fell, I knew the stakes were low. In a month and a half, the semester would end and I would leave to study in Madrid, while he would stay behind in California for the year until he returned to Germany. I celebrated this as a way to make the relationship strings free and contemporary; we both had reasonable expectations about where it was going, so we could avoid getting hurt.

“Sober and honest, but without the slightest hint of malice.”

In the end, of course, I was forced to eat my words. We surprised ourselves at how quickly the feelings came and how uninhibited we were in letting them develop. In the final days when we would be alone and we came to a lull in conversation, there was always a small landslide of thoughts that rested precariously on the tip of my tongue. There were times I even thought of telling him I loved him. But I never found it in myself to release those floodgates. I knew that if I did I wouldn’t be able to handle a silent response and so I myself chose silence as protection.

After we had said our goodbyes, I fell quickly back into old habits. In my desperate effort to avoid the mourning process altogether, I surrounded myself with the familiar voices of friends with whom I could chatter effortlessly for hours, with the kinds of boys I used to know who would readily participate in my rhetorical melees. In certain ways, it dawned on me how much I had missed the craftsmanship in conversation.

But the more I sought solace in talk, the more often I also found myself missing those days in his room, sitting and allowing the deafening roar of absolutely nothing to wash over us. Maybe what scared me most about those long breaks in conversations was the emotional rawness that stirred to fill the void. In the absence of words, all that was left was the unspoken physical and emotional connection between us. I may have mastered the art of communication, but he, in his fearless lust for silence, had ironically perhaps subconsciously mastered the art of intimacy.

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