I know why dogs bark at vacuum cleaners and cats run away in horror at the mere sight of them. They're noisy as hell. Sure, most people would probably agree that they're loud, but they have no idea how bad it really is. They can't hear what I hear. On top of the typical roar, which is bad enough in itself, is this high-frequency shrill that threatens to split my head in half every time I hear it. The new cleaners in the office just got a new one that's the worst yet. I've been thinking of asking them to switch to a quieter model, but I'm not quite sure how I'd explain it. The only good news is that the higher the frequency, the louder it has to be to pass through walls. So, as long as they're not cleaning our floor, I can usually keep it out. The low rumble of the street outside is a different story altogether. Low-frequency sounds travel far without losing much intensity. Fortunately, they're not nearly as unpleasant.
Of all my heightened senses, none is quite the double-edged sword my sense of hearing is. I work hard at keeping most of the noise out, but there almost always seems to be just a little too much coming through. I always seem to be hearing more than I need to. There's just too much noise of people on the sidewalk rushing past me, cars roaring along down the street, jack-hammers pounding cement, dogs barking, children screaming, and stereos playing at volumes that threaten to make a whole generation deaf by the time they hit sixty-five.
I know I shouldn't complain too much, because for all the energy it takes to keep the cacophony of daily life at bay, there's no denying the usefulness of the world of sound. In a world without color or detail, sounds can tell you a lot. For example, have you ever noticed how most people let out just a little bit of air every time they smile? That's one of my favorite sounds. Another one is the sound of the ocean when the waves break against a cliff or a sandy beach. When you can never experience perfect silence, the second best thing is Mother Nature's perfect white noise.
I grew up in the city, so it wasn't until I started college that I ever got to go to the beach. With Manhattan being an actual island, getting near the water was never a problem, but it's not quite the same as experiencing the ocean without all the background noise of eight million people going about their business. In college, I met Foggy, which was one of the best things to ever happen to me. Not only has he been my best friend ever since then and forgiven me my years of deception, he also had access to his parents' house in the Hampton's. Unlike me, Foggy comes from money. His family isn't extremely wealthy, and their summer house is certainly no palace, but it's right on the beach, which quickly became a favorite place of mine.
The first time we went was during our first year of college. It was early in the season and the beaches were practically deserted. It was still chilly in the evenings, but we decided to go anyway, and both of us felt like great adventurers as we screamed along to the songs on the radio for the drive out of the city. It hurt my ears a little, but it was a lot of fun. As soon as we got there, we unloaded our things at the house and stuffed a picnic basket with some Coke, hotdogs and all the necessary ingredients for making s'mores. Needless to say, Foggy was shocked to learn that I had never had s'mores before and saw it as his personal mission to remedy this sad state of affairs. But it wasn't just the s'mores. I'd never sat at a real camp fire before either. I was a city kid who had never been in the Boy Scouts and had never gone to camp, so it wasn't surprising when you think about it. I didn't even know what I was missing.
My hand was on his arm as he guided me past every obstacle on our way down to the water. There was really no need for that, but he didn't know it at the time and I had no way of really telling him – or anyone else – about how it is that I can sense the location of objects around me even though I can't see. The further away we got from the buildings behind us, the more it felt like walking into a void. With almost nothing around me to reflect back whatever energy my mind creates, the sound of the ocean and the faint impression of the house some four hundred feet away were the only discernible landmarks. I should have been uneasy, but I wasn't. There was something oddly peaceful about the whole thing.
Foggy went looking for driftwood to fuel the fire we were making while I got the blanket out, along with all the food for our two-person beach party. Before long, he returned with enough wood to keep a fire burning for hours and it didn't take him more than a couple of minutes to get one going. Actually, that's another sound I like: the crackling of fire wood as it burns, the way it hisses and breaks as the fire consumes it. Years later, after I donned my costume and quite arrogantly designated myself as the protector of Hell's Kitchen, I would come to know other kinds of fires. The kind that can tear down a whole city block. Fire has never been my element; it has no solid form and only registers as heat to me, so I stay away if I can. Controlled fire, on the other hand, is something else entirely. It's warm and comforting; and it sounds great.
When we finally got our food cooking, Foggy had a great time pointing out to me that I was holding my hot dog too close to the flame. I jokingly reminded him of the fact that I couldn't actually see it, but he wouldn't give me a break. I always liked that about him. I know how nervous he was around me the first couple of days we roomed together, even though I've never brought it up since, but once he got over the initial shock of being stuck with a blind guy it was never a big deal for him. As far as the hot dog went, I'm lucky enough to be equipped with a killer nose, so I didn't burn it too badly. While we ate we talked about all the random things we usually talked about, everything from our favorite classes to the infinity of space. And, we shared our insecurities. His usually centered around his bad luck with the opposite sex. Mine varied, but at the time I think I had started worrying about whether anyone would actually hire me when I got out of school. I think that night may have been the first time he suggested that we go into practice together. We were just freshmen, but we both new that we wanted to be lawyers.
By the time we got the s'mores going, the sun had begun to set. I knew because I could feel it taking the heat with it as it started to dip below the horizon. I also knew because Foggy told me. I guess it must have been a great sunset because I could have sworn he was feeling just a little bad for me right then. Maybe I would have felt bad too if it weren't for the fact that it was one of those times when my other senses paid me back in full for what I'd lost. After I'd finished my first s'more, which I found to be a nice, but slightly overrated treat, I asked Foggy if there were any obstacles between the water and where we were sitting. I already knew there weren't, and when he answered I walked down to the water, leaving my cane behind. The waves spilled over my feet with the kind of chill that makes the bones ache, but I loved every moment of it. The roar of the ocean that night was the kind of sound that I could let myself take in fully, without fear of losing control. As I stood there I wondered if maybe, if I listened carefully enough, I could hear the whales calling to each other out at sea. I'm pretty sure I heard something. Then again, maybe it was just my imagination.
Foggy and I ate a couple of more s'mores and talked about the upcoming election. Then we talked about the party we were going to the following weekend. I never cared much for parties, but I knew that having a shot at something resembling a college social life was important to him, so I always went anyway. Though I suppose he might understand why being someone others were often afraid to approach wasn't always fun, I doubt he would have understood the more important reason. Being in a packed room with music loud enough to make the walls shake messes with my head. Severely. But I couldn't tell him that, and it didn't matter anyway. He was such a good friend to me, and I wanted to return the favor.
As the chill of the night set in and the stars came out, Foggy quite forcefully grabbed my wrist and pointed out all the different constellations. Though I shouldn't say all since he actually only knew five of them, which I thought was kind of funny. As we lay on our backs on the blanket, I knew Foggy was looking at the sky. I was listening to the rhythmical sounds of a never-ending cycle of waves washing over sand and the crackling of the fire that was slowly dying about a foot from my head. My state of complete bliss must have been apparent because after a little while Foggy asked me what I was smiling about. I just thanked him for bringing me and asked if we could do it again some time.
We ended up going back a couple of times a year after that, all through law school. We changed, our topics changed, and I don't think we ever made s'mores again, but the ocean was always there waiting. I think about it sometimes when the constant roar of the city gets to be too much of a good thing, and when the cleaning crew comes through our office. To any dog out there who can't stop barking at the vacuum cleaner, I feel your pain. Thank God there's always the beach.