Texture of Silence

By Pamela Schmid
May 17th, 2016

Back to Issue

 you will go(kiss me

down into your memory and
a memory and memory

i)kiss me,(will go)

—e.e. cummings

~~~

Headaches. Pain. And what had we done for her? Not a thing. No letter, no phone call, certainly no visit. Inside the cramped chapel, my sister and I teetered in our patent-leather pumps and took in our best friend’s lifeless body. We stood under hot fluorescent lights, burning with shame.

Decades later, I can’t wipe the image from my mind:

A mannequin of skin and bones. A light blue dress—she never wore dresses—and untamable hair primped into shiny straightness. The face betrays her most of all. It resembles that of a porcelain doll, white and ghastly, with disks of rouge swirled over both cheeks. The rouge can’t hide the tautness of her skin, the sharp bones of her face. And her eyes—heavy, algae-lidded.

Seeing Pam’s face made me understand how awful things had been for her over the previous months—months when I’d been partying with friends, pining over the class valedictorian, signing yearbooks and pondering the mysteries of life after high school. All those months Patti and I had barely given our best friend a second thought. We didn’t have all the information, but we knew enough. The headaches, the pain. We should have been there for her. We should have realized how bad things had gotten.

~~~

She was dark, athletic and lithe like a Slinky, with dark Egyptian eyes and gravity-defying hair. A year older than me and three full years older than Patti, she lived in the house behind ours. My sister and I split her down the middle from early on, to ease sisterly squabbling, and the system worked well for years. My Pam days were Monday, Wednesday and Friday; Patti got her Tuesdays and Thursdays. Often, Pam and I headed to the courts at the local elementary school, playing SPUD and Around the World, the rusty rim clanging like a shipyard bell. Sometimes we dug out our softball mitts and lobbed lazy rainbows over the stubbled grass. Once, Pam chipped my right front tooth when her plastic Wiffle ball bat slammed into my mouth. On winter days, we stayed inside and sang along to our 45s of the Archies and Elton John. We remembered when rock was young. We clutched our air microphones bobbing to the beat, crazed monks adhering to sacrament.

~~~

We mourned alone, Patti and I.  We told no one that our best friend had died. It shocked us how easy it was to pretend she had never existed. The way we’d abandoned her, our unworthiness as friends, her cheekbones protruding like clip-point blades—all wiped clean. We fooled the world. We fooled ourselves. We never spoke of her, even between ourselves. We swathed ourselves in the fine linen strips of our silence until it hardened like resin.

~~~

A memory plucked: plunging forward, alone-but-not, through the dank concrete tunnel of my youth. A conduit for Pimmit Run creek, it opens black and beckoning one block from home, just down the hill from the elementary school.  It snakes underground, beneath the neighborhood, before spilling out two blocks onto Westmoreland Drive.

We come here when the mood strikes us—not often, but often enough—and typically in twos. But one rare day, all three of us make the trip. We segregate ourselves by 25 feet or so, tumbling into the maw like parachutists.  First Pam, the fearless one, squinting into the tunnel’s mouth and gone. She doesn’t even hesitate. Slick-palmed, I slowly count to sixty, and now it’s my turn. I freeze for ten more seconds, imagining the bugs and rats and snakes, before slipping inside. I suck in my breath. My footfalls bounce off the sloping walls, and my body tingles with dread over this encasement, this slow slip-slide from yellow to black, this untethered descent into shadow.

Darkness licks my skin.  I would imagine death feels this way.

~~~

Pam bruised easily, on account of her chronically low white blood count. Her arms and legs also sported snow-white blotches, caused by a skin disease called “vitiligo.” Patti and I barely noticed the blotches, but they mortified Pam, and her sensitivity to sun forced her to cover up on even the sultriest Virginia days. Once, she became so badly sunburned that huge blisters ballooned on her thighs and calves, keeping her prone for days.

~~~

Just before entering seventh grade, Pam moved across the country, to Los Altos, California. She had a treehouse and pool out back, and she hated it there. We never saw her California home, but when her family moved to New Jersey a couple years later, we spent a week of each summer there. She also joined us on family vacations.  One year on Nantucket island, we all bought red, long-sleeved T-shirts. We caught waves on our Boogie boards and, taking a cue from the movie Ten, we cruised the beach and rated the bodies of shirtless teen-age boys. One day, we decided to walk the two miles to the beach from our rental house, and hollered out songs from America and Simon and Garfunkel—Horse with No Name, Mrs. Robinson.  Imagine two miles of windswept trees, silky beach grass, goldenrod. Imagine three sets of red-sleeved arms beseeching tender blue sky. Imagine the freedom.

~~~

We never mentioned Pam’s name, and while our parents must have noticed, they never intervened. They never told us it wasn’t our fault. I suppose they felt powerless in the face of our grief and lacked the words to lead us through. But in the vacuum, our mouths stayed shut. We tried to shed the guilt from our hearts, tried so hard to forget. In doing so, we blotted out a friend who’d been like a sister to us.

We were in silent cahoots, Patti and I. Every so often, one of us would slip and utter her name in conversation, and the other would respond with a sharp intake of breath, a cross between a gasp and a sniff.

You’re not supposed to talk about her. Remember?

~~~

For college, Pam settled on Virginia Tech, a five-hour drive south from our home in the suburbs. Pam’s mother had given up trying to domesticate her by then, and in short order she joined the women’s rugby team. Considering her vitiligo and bruising, it seemed daring—crazy, even—but really, it was completely in character.

We began to hear about Pam’s headaches early in my senior year. She mentioned them once in a letter to me, written on stationery fringed with tiny cartoonish birds. The birds flitted and tumbled, and Pam wrote of her headaches in passing—a minor irritation. One day, Patti and I learned that she’d have to leave school for a while. Her mother drove everywhere in search of a doctor who could explain Pam’s headaches, but it soon became clear that such a doctor did not exist. The headaches worsened, costing her sleep, shedding pounds from her body. I heard all of this second-hand, through my mother, and because it took place so far away, the information floated inside my head like dust, never quite settling.

~~~

Today, I wonder: Was our silence linked somehow to the way each of us hoarded our friendships with Pam, like the rubber animals we collected in clear plastic cases? All those embedded rituals Pam and I shared: blood sisters (that rusty sour iron taste); our hippie club (oversized T-shirts with hand-written peace signs, our fingers forming a perpetual “V”); sock dolls we made and personified far past the age when we should have outgrown such things. We married our favorite stuffed animals: Blue Bear (mine, ratty and tattered) and Snakey (hers, made from a circular loom and stuffed with Kleenex), complete with a marriage certificate penned in pink and green. We gave each other Deejay handles; I was Pammy Batty; she went by Pammy Whoopee. My sister, no doubt, had forged her own rituals with Pam. In her diary, Patti once mentioned a secret language they’d invented, which must have died once Pam moved out West.  For years, we were two and two but rarely three, pairs of electrons forming ever-shifting covalent bonds, repulsing outsiders.

~~~

The tunnel unwinds before me, endless. At its very darkest, it feels like a rolling, airless sarcophagus. Below me, the creek trickles. Above me, on Macon Street, comes the whoosh of an oncoming car. I hear the faint smack of Pam’s footsteps ahead of me, and even more faintly, those of Patti tapping behind.  I envision bugs and snakes, hear a symphony of gnashing teeth. Blood thuds in my temples.  If I keep moving, pay no attention to the echoes or blackness, I can make it through.

~~~

Patti and I didn’t understand how bad things had gotten until mid-May, when our mother informed us that Pam was now in the hospital.  A few days later, she fell into a coma.  We planned to visit her by then, but by then it was already too late. Four days later, I walked into the house after my final day of classes and there was my mother, crouched at the top of the stairs. Her eyes were red and she had a foggy look, as if she had just woken from a nap that she hadn’t planned on taking.  I remember the way my hand rested on the white banister, nails bitten to the quick.  I knew. I knew.

~~~

The silence, born of shame, took on a life of its own. It sharpened over time, became knives in our throats, a sickness we couldn’t shake.  It parched our lips. The longer it wore on, the more disgraced we felt by it. By now, Patti and I had no choice but to keep it up. In the tinder-dry air, our silence chipped away at the deepest parts of us, and still, we could not say the words that would free us.

~~~

Patti and I had shared our friend, but our friendships each had their own contours.  Pam and I were closer in age, of course. Our names bonded us, too; not only were we both Pam, but her middle name was Elizabeth and mine was Beth.  Pam had three years on Patti—an eternity when you’re young. Still, who am I to say whether that gap diminished their friendship in any way?  We were all three Leos, our birthdays falling between July 22nd and 31st. The last week of July used to feel like one long celebration. Now it stretches before me, endless and dark.

~~~

A dozen years passed before Patti and I broke our silence. We had just run a road race together—it would be our last, though we didn’t know it then—and as we walked over Key Bridge to the Virginia side of the Potomac, back to our car, Pam’s name crashed our conversation. The air smelled fishy and rank.  I don’t remember who said it first.  But as soon as it was out, I could breathe again, great, rich gulps of air that billowed inside my lungs and heaved out again. 

Pam Pope.

Pam Pope.

Pam Pope.

The river winked sunlight. A motorboat buzzed by. The name floated high above us, weightless like a paper bird.  It became part of the air. We asked ourselves that day: Why? Why were we silent? Was it ignorance and immaturity piled atop guilt? How could we not recognize that it was eating us alive?

But we left those questions hanging. After all those years, we still could not make sense of why her name, her very existence, had stuck in our throats.

~~~

I look back as if through blackened glass, squinting.  Even now, I grope for the answer, the root of it all. Does silence beget silence? Does it contract over time? I would bounce these questions off Patti, but here’s the thing: Now she is gone, too. Who could have guessed that we’d have no more chances to talk about Pam, about anyone? That we’d go from three to one? That I would be the only one left?

~~~

Thomas Carlyle wrote: Silence is deep as Eternity; speech shallow as time.  But silence, I have discovered, has density, texture and shape. Recently, I ran past the St. Paul Cathedral at high noon, the tall buildings of downtown rising like clouds. As I turned the corner toward home, I heard a bell strike, then another. There were twelve in all, spaced two seconds apart.  A minute passed, maybe more, before a different bell sounded. This one pealed at a higher register, and the tones came rapid-fire: one-two-three. Between each set came a ten-second pause—long enough for the sound to dissipate but not so long that it disappeared completely. It hung in the sky, as airy as sponge cake: an echo, a flutter, memory.

~~~

The marriage certificate and sock dolls and letters went into a box under my bed, but they didn’t go away, not really. We couldn’t help remembering, and each memory laced the air like mist, like the sweet aftershock of a kiss.

Ever stare at a tree in the wintertime—long enough for your memory to fill in what’s no longer there? Instead of browns and grays you see a shimmer of green, a long-buried image bursting forth. The leaves unfurl before you, there-but-not. You blink and shiver.  You try to look away, but you can’t.

~~~

True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.  So wrote William Penn. But William, our silence was never true. It felt neither restful nor nourishing. Consider how it began: by negating, annulling, denying. Consider the impetus: shame. Consider the effect: Our silence dishonored our friend far more than anything we might have done, or not done, in the final months of her life. By wiping her name from our mouths and memories, we committed the worst sin of friendship imaginable. Our silence, William, was no great virtue. It was anguished and cruel.

~~~

Better to think of the words of Jean Baptiste Racine: La douleur qui se tait n’en est que plus funeste. Silent anguish is the more dangerous. Grief eats away like acid. It seeks an outlet, a place to spill itself. When the mouth stays shut, the natural outlet is blocked. Grief pools and floods. It closes the throat, burns the tongue. We forget how to form words at all.

~~~

The afternoon the cathedral bells rang, I continued north toward my house. From a block away on Avon Street, I heard a wild keening. At first, I imagined a dog, but as I approached, a girl no older than four stood before me. She wore a flowered sweatshirt and pink stretch pants. She stood in her back yard, propped against a weathered wooden fence as two women—one presumably her mother—carried cardboard boxes to a car. The little girl howled; the women were stone-faced. The girl’s face was pink and crumpled, and her keening sounded like the wails of veiled women I’d been hearing on television—women cradling lifeless bodies, loved ones killed by shelling, or car bomb, or something equally senseless. Those women shrieked and bayed like injured hounds, unleashing grief so raw that it pricked me halfway across the world. They didn’t hold back, and the little girl in pink stretch pants hadn’t learned to hold back, either, not yet.  The scope of her tragedy did not compare to whatever those veiled women had lost—maybe her favorite doll had been packed into one of those boxes—but to her, the pain must have felt just as real. Her first instinct was release, to give it up to the air.

~~~

The past rises up like a phantom. Shared memories are only mine now. I can’t handle that responsibility, can’t distinguish any more between what happened and my insufficient memory of what happened, revisited and reconstructed over decades. The walk over the river. My mother’s tear-streaked face at the top of the stairs. (She remembers nothing of that scene.)  It’s almost as if the silence itself has eaten away at my recollections, oxidizing them more rapidly than time alone. Locked in the dark for so many years, memories molder. Now, my moments with Pam return indistinct—dreamlike splicings that may or may not have happened the way I recall.

But even the faultiest memories carry a germ of truth. Maybe they can even set us free.

~~~

I return to the bridge, to graceful arches and sunlight on the Potomac. To the words I wish we’d said.

            We were young, I tell her. We couldn’t handle what happened. We didn’t deal because we didn’t know how.    

Sure, she says. But the less we talked about her, the less real she felt—the less real I felt. Even that first day, the day Pam died, you stayed in your room. You never came down. The worst day of our lives, and we never talked about it.

And then I remember: throwing myself on the four-poster bed, dry-eyed.  I couldn’t cry at first, I tell her. When I heard you sobbing downstairs, I was finally able to cry.

But you never came down, she insists, and even now, in this conversation that exists only in my head, I don’t know what to say. I didn’t go down. I cried alone. I couldn’t face her tears.

We walk on in silence, under gray, jagged clouds.
            We could have helped each other, Patti says at last. We didn’t hurt Pam, not really. She would have understood. The only people we hurt were ourselves.

~~~

It is never too late to exhume a past that might have been. It is never too late to remember.

~~~

The tunnel unfurls before me and I plunge ahead in the darkness, in this limbo of my own making. I mouth supplication, would give anything to see unobstructed sky again. And then I detect the slightest shift, barely a glimmer.  Far in the distance, the black bleeds away like the horizon in the moments before sunrise.

A memory unearthed. An ache slowly lifting.

Breath releases from my ribcage. My fingers tingle with blood. I rush headlong toward the tunnel’s open mouth.

~~~

It begins with a ringing doorbell. I open the front door and she stands before me, her mother at her side.  I have no explanation for her appearance, besides the possibility that she is on her way to Virginia Tech to start college.  I remember my shock, as if I’m seeing a ghost.  She doesn’t belong here. Why didn’t she call first, give us advance notice?  I’m at a loss for words, don’t know what script I should follow. I don’t even think to ask them in. Instead, I stand there smiling, dumb and discomfited, until Pam’s mother says something about getting to Blacksburg before nightfall. And then, before turning to leave, Pam leans over and kisses my cheek. She has never before kissed me, and it feels soft and sweet.  My final memory of her ends there, with a kiss that leaves me stunned, that throws light on shadow that feels, somehow, like goodbye and hello, forgiveness and release, and everything in between.