I am waiting in an airport terminal. Around me, hundreds of overlapping voices form a loud, conversational hum. My book, Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding, is split open in my lap:
The radio in the dining room was playing a mixture of many stations: a war voice crossed with the gabble of an advertiser, and underneath there was the sleazy music of a sweet band. The radio had stayed on all summer long, so finally it was a sound that as a rule they did not notice.
But my focus wanes as I struggle to dismiss the humming of the airport as simply background noise. Each overheard sentence, laugh, or accent, reveals a window into another life. Maybe it’s just a habit left over from my introverted childhood, but I’ve never been able to resist looking in. Some of my most memorable conversations have not been my own.
On my right, a mid-60s man with a big belly in a golf shirt is talking on the phone. His voice is emotional, his tone solemn. He says he’s having a weird day. Just found out an old friend died of colon cancer. “Two weeks ago he was completely fine,” he says, fiddling with the zipper on his briefcase.
To my left, a young businessman eats Cheetos and talks loudly on his Bluetooth headset while typing on a BlackBerry with his not-orange hand. He says his wife doesn’t like that he has to take so many work trips. She goes to night school. She should understand that he’s got long-term goals, too. In a pep-talk voice he says, “This meeting is the kicker. We’re not just gonna stay in the game, we’re gonna win it.”
I hear one side of each phone conversation, two halves of dialogue. They interact, oblivious to each other but connected through my ears.
The older man continues, looking down at chaotically dull airport carpet. He can’t spend all his life caught up in a job, he says, as if he has all the time in the world. “It’s making me think, at my age, I need to make a change.”
The businessman, meanwhile, is laughing. “He scratched it already?” he says, “Goddamn. If that was my truck, I’d probably kill him.”
The conversations wind down.
“We’ll talk about it more tonight,” says the older man.
“I land in Mexico City around 10,” says the businessman.
At this point I realize I have been sitting at the wrong terminal — I’m supposed to be getting on a plane to Seattle. I slam my book and scramble my things together. My flight leaves in 10 minutes. Their conversations stretch in my ears as I run off toward my gate, until they split apart and retract, separated again by a deaf blue seat.
As I board the plane I find myself hoping that without me next to him, the businessman will pause and listen to the older man just one seat away. Would Cheeto-dusted lips be silenced by revelation? Would thumbs hover, suddenly motionless, over tiny Blackberry buttons? And the older man — would he reach over and take the Bluetooth headset, crush it in one hand, and say with resolve, “It’s not too late for you, son. Run home to your night-school wife and tell her you love her. Go on, change your miserable life before it is doomed by divorce and colon cancer!” As my mind fills in blanks with possible truths and elaborate analyses, the overheard conversations become as fictional as the words in my book.
We learn to speak as children by listening to the voices that surround us. But once we have learned, nothing can really make us stop, except the occasional throat tumor or bronchitis. Not only this, but a growing population of devices and social media outlets create the seductive illusion that we always have an audience. Someone is always listening, so we should always be talking.
Amid this cultural babble, what is overhearing? I used to think my attentiveness in observing strangers was based in a desire to learn from people, to vicariously experience other lives and build a wider understanding of humanity. But of the meaning found in these conversations, how much is injected by me? How much is actually about me? Listening can be as selfish as talking.
Ultimately, I know almost nothing of those men in the airport. If I spoke to them, my particular impressions would shatter when confronted with even the most minor detail of their lives. My quiet, abstract judgments reflect reality no more than the loud musings of a rambling hobo on the street who won’t shut up, and doesn’t care who is listening. Overheard conversations become a mirror, indicative of my own opinions and perspective than anything else.
But maybe just finding a balance between listening and speaking is missing the point. Mostly because words themselves often miss the point. Perhaps more ambiguous modes of communication, such as body language, eye contact, and gibberish, can free us from our need for meaning enough to reveal a more basic need for connection.
On the plane I sit in the window seat. People file past me and finally a blonde girl sits down next to me. She is 12 or 13. Her plaid backpack almost matches her pink shirt. She looks nervous. It’s probably her first time flying alone. I think about giving her a few comforting words, but decide against it. What could I say to her? She presses wax into the crevices of her mouth where the braces hurt.
The baby in the seat in front of us laughs. She has big brown eyes and olive skin. And she squirms out of her mother’s arms and reaches her hand back toward me, saying something in gibberish. Her fingers are pinched as if she is holding something, but there is nothing there. I laugh nervously. I am bad with kids; I always try to overanalyze them. The first time I lived in a city I would write down the noises of babbling babies on buses, suspecting that they might actually be holy prophets, tragically ignored by everyone, even their own parents.
She continues pushing her pinched paw towards me, repeating the gibberish. She is like a street magician, a crazy goat lady, all mystery and toothlessness and thin hair. Her nails have chipped pink paint on them. I imitate her gesture hoping to understand its meaning. What’s that, baby? Is the great flood coming? Who do you want me to warn?
The toddler moves her offering to the twelve year old. Without hesitating, the girl reaches out and takes the invisible item.
“Thank you!” she says.
The toddler offers several more invisible items, and each time the girl takes it. I am stunned. It was so simple all along; it was just a gift.
“Thank you!” she says, holding countless invisible treasures in her fingers, “thank you.”
Illustration by Hallie Bateman