Muted

The past week was very quiet.

Sunday night I felt a pain in my left ear. Monday afternoon I underwent scrutiny at Health Services: the doctor peering through the ear-scope said, “Oh boy” and told me I had a nasty middle ear infection.  Tuesday morning, I woke up and realized I couldn’t hear anything from my left ear. The doctor had said that my hearing would be muffled for a while and so it was.

At first, things went badly. I almost slept past my morning alarm. I had to repeat my order thrice at Meeting Street Cafe and was forced to make an awkward drinking gesture to get a glass of water from the waiter. And when I went to watch a play downtown, I missed all my friend’s whispers.

For a couple of days, I was miserable and uncomfortable, but one morning while getting tea at the Blue Room, I found myself appreciating the quiet. As I sipped my Darjeeling brew, I felt absolute calm—something I hadn’t felt after the first few days of semester. In linear algebra lecture—a class which I am being forced to take—I found the lecturer’s strident voice softened; my doodle art flourished. During lunch with a friend, who is a pre-med, I only knew she was speaking because her lips were moving. Since her stories generally involved gruesome biological experiments—she was the one who had described the correct method of removing a rat’s liver—I was happy to just nod and continue breaking naan.

Like Darwin’s finches, I had adapted.

On Friday, I again nodded myself through conversations and classes. At the end of the day, I went to Jo’s for dinner: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays are quesadilla days and I try not to miss them. The line was long and I was wearing my thick winter jacket, sweating. A Justin Bieber song was playing on the overhead speakers; I could make out the strains of music from my right ear. Only my love for molten cheese was keeping me standing. As the line shuffled forward, I let my mind wander. When the girl standing in front of me in the line turned and said something I almost missed it.

“ I’m sorry what did you say?” I asked, when I realized she was trying to talk to me.

“ I thought it was grilled cheese today and now that it’s quesadilla I’m even more excited,” she said, her hair falling over her face.

Now, with my auditory senses affected, Bieber blaring on the speakers, and sweat pouring down my face I did not want to engage in a conversation, especially with a stranger. But I could hardly turn my back on her now. So I took a long breath and opened my mouth to speak.

I have pieced together the transcript-annotations that follow like an archaeologist: slowly and painfully putting together facts and guesses. At the time, however, I was just winging it.

“ I just wish the line was shorter,” I said.

“ But the…emancipation…better.” [Looking back, she was probably saying the anticipation made it better.]

I failed to see how our freedom had anything to do with the quesadilla line being long, so I just nodded.

But she didn’t let me get away that easily: “ Don’t you think so?”

“ I like freedom…yeah.”

She gave me a strange look and brushed the hair away from her face, “ What do you mean?”

Seeing that I couldn’t dodge the question any longer, I decided to go all in: “ I mean like the freedom to…to make our own quesadillas you know. Decide what to put in it, what to leave out, or even…” I paused for effect, “…whether to get a quesadilla or not. That’s a sort of freedom too you know.”

“ Uh…right,” she said.

“ In the Ratty it is either take it or leave it. They’ll spoil a perfectly good dish by putting in mushrooms or arugula or something you don’t like, but here,” I waved my arm expansively towards the salad line and burger grill, “ You get to decide.”

“ Hmmm…” she said, her eyes looking around.

“ I am so tired of not being given the choice,” I said, warming to my theme now, “ I mean how many times in a week do they expect us to eat undercooked chicken and the same old pasta? You were completely right; this is about basic freedoms.”

“ Uh huh, wow you feel strongly about this,” she said.

“ I do, I do,” I said, quite pleased with my little impromptu speech.

The line had slowly shuffled forward and there were only 4-5 people ahead of us now. “ Number 2,” the BuDS student-worker manning the grill shouted out—a student balancing a Chobani yogurt in one hand and a soda in the other hurried up from the back of the hall to get his quesadilla. After slicing the quesadilla using a pizza cutter, the BuDS worker, went back to the grill station, and looking over his shoulder shouted out, “ Number 3.”

“ You have to…good choice…this,” the girl said. [ “ You have to have a good voice for this.” ]

“ Exactly, it’s all about the freedom of choice,” I said, refusing to venture too far from our only common conversation ground.

Another eyebrow raise, another slight pause. The line moved forward.

“ So what’s your major?” the girl asked, trying to change the topic.

“ I study Computer Science, but I’m interested in a lot of other things: history, literature, psych.”

“ Nice, taking full advantage of the Open Curriculum?”

“ Yeah,” I nodded.

“ Enjoying the freedom of it?” she asked.

“ Yeah, yeah exactly,” I said, playing along, while secretly thinking that this was getting weird.

She nodded a few times, “ Did you see…snow…Main Green…”

With people talking, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” playing, and my busted ear I only got half the words. But I guessed she was talking about the upcoming snowstorm the University had been sending emails about.

“ Oh yeah, I’ve stocked up on food: got enough for the weekend. I don’t think I’m going to step out.”

“ You’re staying indoors all weekend because of snowmen on the Main Green?” the girl’s voice rose an octave in surprise,  “A fucking snowman?” A few people from the salad line looked over.

Luckily, by now we were at the front of the quesadilla line and I got to exercise the freedoms I had been extolling just a few minutes before: “ Chicken, tomatoes, green peppers, onion, no mushrooms, medium cheese…yeah thanks.”

Having ordered my quesadilla and mentally noted my number, I made myself scarce. When my number was called out I dashed up, grabbed the plate, and got out before the girl could find me again. I had no desire to prolong the conversation: the next questions would have undoubtedly dealt with my phobia of creatures of ice and I wasn’t strong enough for the interrogation.

As I dashed out of Jo’s, fumbling with the straps of my hat, I promised myself I wouldn’t speak with anyone till my ear healed. Back in the safety of my room, with no one to talk to, I felt a slight pang of regret at my cowardice; I could have stuck around to explain, but with things so weird already I had decided to bolt. It could have been the start of a good friendship I thought as I bit into my quesadilla, avoiding the thin cheese strands.
And now, two weeks later, with the muffled sound completely gone and my hearing back to normal, I find myself tilting my head in every conversation and leaning forward to drown out the crowd and trying, not to miss a single word.

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