Jul/Aug 2005  •   Fiction

What Was Heard

by Sarah Stodola

The voices only become noticeable once they start rising, carrying out their own window and across the stifling alley, then across the terrace off the bedroom where I have set up a desk to use as a pseudo-office, sounding as if they are much closer than they actually are. At first, the sounds are nearly inaudible, and I could only tell that there were voices and that they were speaking in Spanish. Not until just now, or perhaps a couple of moments ago, could I hope to understand what is being said.

There are two voices, one a man's, the other, of course, a woman's (isn't this always the formula for rising voices in foreign countries?). From the bed, where I have retreated to from a bout of writer's block, it is easy to stare up at the ceiling and imagine what these quarreling lovers might look like. In the imagination, they are always assumed to be beautiful, a woman in a full linen skirt with her long, dark hair haphazardly pulled back, with strands falling where they should, the man tall and thin but muscular, in a summer suit, maybe a hat, smoking a cigarette while contemplating his simultaneous hate of and love for his hot-tempered woman.

Now I am able to pick apart, with my broken Spanish, bits and bobs of the conversation. She is asking him how much and he is declining to answer. It must be about money, then. These things are the same in every country. I imagine she was happy to see him at first, and that she had some money coming to her from him, and now he has failed to produce what he owes her. Perhaps they are saving up to get out of their tiny apartment (the building across the way seems less privileged than mine). Or perhaps she is hoping to go to school, or to take an acting class, or to start some kind of business. Or maybe she is less ambitious and only wants to go on vacation.

But suddenly, she is screaming with fury, speaking much too fast to be understood by a foreigner with a shaky grip on the Spanish language, and it is obvious something more ominous has happened than the careless squandering of a bit of money. It seems she has hurled something delicate at the wall—it is the shattering noise that indicates this. And in my imagining of the scene it is a clear glass vases containing red roses, which are now scattered on the floor in little puddles of water, among shards of glass.

The next words I make out involve "the police" and "payment." And now it seems likely the man has done something illegal, without first consulting the woman, or perhaps in blatant defiance of her expressed wishes. Now she is saying she is scared. He tells her it's nonsense. Perhaps he has stolen a large amount of money in a scheme he believes to be perfect.

She is sobbing, and spewing words I can't hope to understand. Then sobs become a bit muffled, most likely because he has taken her in his arms and she is crying into his shoulder. It doesn't last long; she must be the kind of woman who regains her strength quickly. She speaks in a low, calm voice, so low I still can't make out any words.

They are sitting in a kitchen with black and white tiled floors (one imagines), with white flowy curtains (which are not imagined—I can see them from my own window), a pitcher of ice-water sweating a ring onto the old wooden table. There is the sound of a bottle being opened, maybe a beer for him. Then the same sound again. Now, calm silence, as they sip their beers to calm the nerves. Perhaps she brushes wet-with-sweat strands of hair from her face, and then cools herself in front of the fan sitting on the kitchen counter. Perhaps he removes his hat for a moment while touching the cold beer bottle to his forehead.

Now they speak in their normal, calm voices; the same voices I often overhear as the day draws to a close and the couple speaks of the day that has passed. But it's not the same, because one senses it is forced. It's not the easy conversation of normalcy, but the tense conversation of those trying to make things as they normally are. Or perhaps simply of those trying to win the battle with their tempers.

The woman—it must be the woman—sets her beer down on the table, and then she utters a line I happen to understand perfectly: "What would people say if they knew? What would they think?"

She has left the room in order to let her lover contemplate the question.