Architecture at Night – Michelle Dicinoski

Several years back, over a period of a week, I started to hear my father’s voice just as I was falling asleep. He was calling my name as though he were standing nearby.

‘Michelle,’ he’d say. ‘Michelle.’

It was weird. He lived a day’s drive away from me then, so it made no sense to hear this voice. I would wake up with a start and look around the room, thinking my father must somehow be there with me. But it was always a dream.

After the first few times it happened, I trained myself to follow the voice into the dream, instead of back into the waking world. To realise I was being called forward, not back.

*

I’ve been thinking about voices a lot lately. It’s partly because I’ve moved to a new country and my accent marks me as different here. My vowels swell in ways that people aren’t used to.

‘A?’ people say, as I try to spell my name to them.

‘I,’ I say. ‘I.’

*

I read an interview with the cultural critic Masha Tupitsyn, who is also interested in voices. She says, ‘If listening is about presence and resonance, it creates the kind of relational space that expands and amplifies the volume of intimacy.’ Looking doesn’t do this. ‘The ear,’ Tupitsyn says, ‘is the only aperture you cannot close.’

*

But there are ways to close the ear. I think of how I used to spend hours on the phone with people I no longer speak to at all.

*

Sometimes I imagine how the conversation might start.

WOMAN 1: Hi.

WOMAN 2: Hi.

WOMAN 1: So. (Exhales softly.) It’s been a little while.

*

On the first real spring day, I walk through the Common at noon and the leaves are so green that they don’t seem real. I think about you and wonder if it’s warm there. A group of five men, jacketless, play on the grass with a soft bat and ball, their pink and blue ties flying as they run. It’s the kind of thing I want to tell someone about. It’s the kind of thing I want to tell you about—how spring has dropped at last and at once, like a curtain.

*

People don’t like to talk on the phone anymore. The number one reason cited for this reluctance is that telephone calls are disruptive. We don’t like surprises like this anymore—or maybe we never did. We like to control who comes into our space. We like to control when and how we respond—or if we respond at all. We like our responses to be studied, careful, appropriate, and, most of all, not too eager. We neither want to be disrupted, nor to seem disrupted.

*

WOMAN 1: I’m just putting my headphones in. Can you still hear me?

WOMAN 2: Yes, that’s good. Loud and clear.

*

For a long time, you were my only friend on this new continent. Though we live far away from each other, I still liked knowing you were there. I talked to you as I went places, or didn’t. As I walked by the river. As I crossed the green metal bridge. In the bath. On a train. Lying on the bed. Staring out the window at the endless snow.

*

Another reason people don’t like talking on the phone is because it’s one-to-one communication, instead of the one-to-many communication of social media. Why call five friends to tell them each the same news when you can tell five hundred or a thousand at once? And telephone calls can take up so much time. They’re just so inefficient.

*

In literature, voice refers to something beyond spoken language. It’s about the unique sound of the narrator, the sense of character that is constructed by elements like word choice, sentence length, syntax. It’s also about a relational style: what the narrator chooses to tell, and how. In making these choices, the writer shapes the perceived closeness or remoteness of the narrator. That’s an important thing. Intimacy and distance. How they’re built. How they shift.

*

When I was a kid, we didn’t call people; we rang. There’s a difference. To call is to hail, to address. To call is to cry out. To call is to name. In calling you, or calling to you, I identify you. To ring is something else again. To ring is to sound like a bell. But to say the word ‘ring’ also makes me think of the other kind of rings. Of promises and unbroken circles. Of things that we hope will last.

*

To make sound, including speech itself, you need two things, says the voice coach Cicely Berry: that which strikes, and that which is struck and ‘which resists the impact to a greater or lesser degree and vibrates accordingly.’

*

Last spring you went to a vineyard by a bay. Afterwards you called me to tell me about it. There was an old-fashioned red telephone box in the middle of the vineyard, you said. And, improbably, there was a working telephone inside. Visitors could go inside and call anyone they liked, free of charge. You were going to ring me, you said, but there was a long queue of tourists. I googled the vineyard when you told me about it, and there it was on my screen: a fire-engine red phone booth, a blue summer sky above it, and rows of green vines stretching off into the distance.

*

Like most kids, I was fascinated by telephones when I was very young. My grandmother’s wall phone was a golden yellow, the color of melted butter. I still remember how it felt: smooth handset, the resistance of the rotary dial against my fingertip, the heat of my ear after a long conversation. To remember this phone is to remember not just talk, but also skin. It’s been decades since I touched a phone like this, but I still feel it in my fingertips when I think of it. Where does this memory live? Will it ever go away?

*

WOMAN 1: Hello. It’s me. Is this a good time?

WOMAN 2: Hi. Yes, just let me put you on speaker. Now, let me get settled.

*

In my imaginary phone calls, I can never get past the preliminaries to the part where we actually say something of consequence. This means I don’t know what I want to say, or I do know, but don’t want to say it. Or perhaps I’m frightened of what you might say. Perhaps I’m frightened that you won’t say anything at all.

*

People seem less concerned with voice in nonfiction than in fiction. In memoir and other forms of creative nonfiction, voice is maybe seen as a given. Natural. Documentary. Like the genres themselves are assumed to be. There’s a general sense that there’s an ease to this form of communication. How hard can it be? You’re just saying what’s true, in the same way that you just open your mouth and talk.

*

There are special descriptors for different qualities of voice. Some of them are familiar words, like breathy, and creaky, and hoarse. But some are less familiar, verbs that emphasize the action involved in voice. Words like bleat, fry, flutter, and shimmer. Words like pressed and strained.

*

Sometimes we talked through the sunset. The light turned from yellow to gold to grey, and then the room was grainy. I could hear things in the distance: a neighbor arriving home, a snatch of music from a car radio, a door slamming, the jingle of keys outside. But they belonged to another time. There on my back on the sofa in a dark room, I was somewhere else, somewhere in between.

*

Another memory of old phones: tracing the helix of the phone cord while talking, feeling the smooth plastic that coated the taut wire, slipping a finger into the coil of the cord. There it was, disappearing. There it was, reappearing. All the while, the person on the other end of the line, the voice.

*

The writer Ian Bogost says that ‘the handset made telephone calls an undeniably carnal art, one in which a foreign apparatus came into close contact with one’s face, ear, and lips.’ It’s true. Talking on the phone wasn’t just talking. It was mouth sounds: sighing, sipping, swallowing, the rearrangement of lips and tongue. Later on, when I was older and living in sharehouses and could drag the phone outside on a long cord, it was the sound of smoking, the long notes of inhalation and exhalation. It was always bodily, even while it was remote.

*

It feels like being a teenager again, this going from speaking to not speaking. I don’t know what to do about it. I pretended everything was okay, and so did you, even as you slowly disappeared. By disappeared, I mean you went silent.

*

A while back I listened to a podcast where a middle-aged gay man from rural Alabama described what it was like to talk on the phone for hours with his friend, another gay man. Sometimes the sun would set and he wouldn’t turn the lights on, but would just sit in the dark house, talking.

I remember that, I thought.

Not their particular conversation, but the feel of hundreds of conversations like that. Conversations I had in my teens. Conversations I had last month. Conversations I had with you.

As the man in the podcast spoke about those phone calls, I listened to him in that immersive way I used to listen on the phone and something strange happened. Time seemed to double back on itself, loop, and catch me and this man there inside it. I don’t think there’s a word for this net of feeling, for all the things that knotted together to make it. I just know it was about loneliness and distance, the things we don’t know how to call for, or the things we want to call for but are scared will never come. It made my chest hurt.

*

‘If we sit and talk in a dark room,’ Marshall McLuhan says, ‘words suddenly acquire new meanings and different textures. They are richer, even more than architecture, which Le Corbusier rightly says can best be felt at night.’ Maybe this is what happens. Or maybe it’s not the words themselves that change, but our bodies. Perhaps at night we surrender to the impact of voices and let ourselves be struck.

*

In movies and sitcoms, the unwillingness to end a phone call has become shorthand for a childish and sentimental romance.

‘You hang up,’ a teenage girl on a pink telephone says.

Cut to a boy on the other end of the line, grinning.

‘No, you hang up,’ he says. And you know that you’re meant to laugh at them, at their unwillingness to separate.

This is funny because knowing when to stop makes us anxious. In a form as meandering as the telephone call, what’s an appropriate ending? In a form as meandering as a friendship, is there ever a right place to stop? In a form as meandering as a life, what should we leave unsaid? None of us really knows.

*

Telephones remind us that sometimes distance lets us be closer to the people we love. Maybe that’s why we like to speak in the dark, because it further disturbs our sense of what’s near and what’s far. The person speaking into your hot ear could be right there, or a world away—whichever feels necessary.

*

In the time when we finally talk, it will be dark again. We’ll arrange a time by message, not wanting to disrupt each other. And there you’ll be, you with your long vowels and your quietness and your insufficient explanations. Sometimes people just disappear, and there is no good reason. Sometimes they go silent for reasons we can’t understand. Afterwards, writing about it, I won’t know how to end the story, in the same way I didn’t, for a long time, know how to start the conversation. How do we break without ending, or end without breaking? How do we know what to call for?

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Michelle Dicinoski is the author of the poetry collection Electricity for Beginners (Clouds of Magellan Press) and the memoir Ghost Wife (Black Inc). She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Queensland and lives in Western Massachusetts.

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