I can hear it only if I am very quiet and very selective. The first thing to go is the bass thumping of C’s stereo. It’s easy to identify and easy to mute. Slowly pull down the slider control in my mind, and it fades away to nothing. In the next room the quiet tinkle and occasional pop of M’s cleaning falls away just as easily. A slight adjustment and it is gone. Harder, but not impossible, are the occasional footfalls on our carpeted floors. They are indistinct and difficult to isolate – but they are there – and when I find them, they fall away too. Here, in this room, the soft whir of the computer and the annoying clatter of the keyboard needs to be blended, compressed, and tuned away with a more deft touch. The hardest of all is the dog’s quiet breathing. A soft snore, barely perceptible, but still there. I struggle with it for a long time before it too fades away with all the other sounds.
And suddenly, there it is. An almost imperceptible white noise. Not really a sizzle, but rather a soft tap, performed by millions of tiny fingers pummeling the roof like a masseuse. Mixed in with the sound of the rain are occasional tings as first one drop, and then another, falls down the gutter. It is the ancient sound of water on metal. A human touch in the otherwise natural setting. There are rhythmic splats too, when a few wayward drops fall from the eaves to the sodden ground below. The damp earth cushions their fall, but they are still there, as persistent as the sounds of my own heartbeat and my breathing – natural counterpoints to the man-made tings in the gutter.
It’s easier to see. I only need to turn to the window and look. On the glass the sounds mix into a vibrant, but subtle vision. Tiny horizontal slashes appear alternately with fat, wet drops on the glass. During the heavier outbursts they combine into a kind of wavy sheet that crawls down the window in a never-ending, but infinitely interesting, loop.
The effect is quite dramatic. The water blurs the colors and the shapes, not nearly enough to completely obscure them, but just enough to offer the scene a gauzy color and texture. It looks like an old notebook, left too long in the rain. The water has entered the very fabric of the paper and changed the clearly inked words into soft emotional portraits of suffused pink and blue. If you squint hard you can still make out the words, but their look and feel are somehow changed by the wash of the raindrops. If the rain goes on long enough, nothing of the words will be left. The pages will be white and the only trace of the words will be some stiffness as the paper dries and warps into soft and crumbling parchment.
To me, the combination of the spare sounds and watery and rippling window are like music. Technonerds might even call it multimedia – sound and light, vision and emotion, all wrapped into one. I am sure Bill Gates would figure out a way to sell it if he could, but the simple fact of merchandising it changes it from one thing into quite another.
When I was in college I shared a house with a few close friends. We named it Bijou Manor and fancied ourselves a world apart. There were many things that made that place special, surely too many to write here, but one of them was my room.
Not long after moving in, I moved from one of the traditional bedrooms on the ground floor to a room at the top of the attic stairs. It was a small space, just big enough for a bed, a small chest of drawers, and a homemade writing desk and bed that doubled as a sleeper and a chair for the desk. The floor slanted slightly toward the overgrown backyard and every board in the place creaked. The walls were paneled with ancient tongue and groove wood, permanently stained almost black from age and many coats of varnish. I fashioned a faux-fancy lamp shade to cover the bare light bulb that hung in the stairwell by enclosing it in a castoff bird cage. Inside lived a model bird, hand carved and insanely colorful. It was done by an anonymous third world craftsman and picked up for a buck at a local import store. Over in the corner was a gas fire – so ancient you needed to light it with a match. It was poorly vented and probably a deathtrap, but it always glows rose and orange in my memories.
The small space looked so much larger because it was glass on three sides. Two of the windows had three or more inch gaps at the bottoms where they hung square to the tilted and settling walls. I never attempted to cover the windows in anyway. I merely turned off the lights when I wanted privacy from the neighbors. It was a curious arrangement that left the place light a greenhouse. Very tropical on sunny days and cold and insular when it rained.
I liked the rainy days the best. Like today’s rain, it ran in intricate patterns over all that glass and into the gutters on the roof outside. Out there in the back of the house I never had to strain out noise. I was permanently isolated. All I could hear was the womblike sound of the rain and all I could see were the wonderful paintings it made of my windows. I could spend entire days there – reading, and writing, and listening to the rain.
My roommates almost never came up the stairs. In fact, many times I am sure they might not have even noticed if I was home. It was a place of invisibility punctuated by the views out my ever-changing windows. It was deathly boring and intensely exciting all at once. It was a place that very few people are fortunate enough to have – a place of their own, on their own terms, inhabited by what pleased them the most, and infinitely variable – it was space and time; an entire universe compressed into a 10 x 8 foot box.
That place is very dear to me now. It was a place of comfort during an almost intolerably uncomfortable time in my life. It held me, and pleased me, and gave me time to think. That small place taught me many things. It was the place where I sorted out my feelings and explored emotions, both troubling and serene. It was a place of safety and a place of danger and a place to sleep, and eat, and dream. When I emerged from it after almost two years, I felt reborn. The rain had washed terrible weights off my shoulders and though I was still young, still afraid, and still confused, it gave me the courage to keep trying. It was the place where I began to heal and from there I went out into a new world.
I am more than 20 years away from that room now. But every time it rains – every time I take the care to concentrate – I can still hear the rain and feel warm and free all over again.