Personal Essay – Overheard

That space at the top of the door. I could hear everything that went on in that house in Surquillo, Lima, Peru through that gap between the top of the door to my room and the ceiling. I spent last summer teaching English in Peru on a work-exchange program, trapped in my tiny bedroom in my host family’s house by that opening. Time is certainly relative, but the same holds true for space — those two feet might as well have been leagues or fathoms.

The room was slightly smaller than a handicapped bathroom stall, and the privacy I was afforded resembled the privacy of a public restroom. Lying in my bed, I often saw Melania, the housekeeper, through the opaque glass wall my room shared with the living room. She was there to throw my damp laundry onto the floor, her slight shadow distorted to resemble a menacing seven-foot monster. She turned around when she peered in and saw the room was occupied.

I heard the eight-year-old daughter, Sofia, practicing her recorder in the living room, blowing out a cacophonic jumble of notes resembling “Mary had a Little Lamb.” Her mother, Cecilia, was talking to her husband, Eduardo, as the salsa theme to a telenovela blared on the television in the background. She was telling him how annoyed she was with her American guest. He scares Sofia. His room is always dirty. Ojalá que se vaya pronto. I hope he leaves soon. But Eduardo couldn’t understand. My first week there, when I had not yet reached the status of resident alien, I asked her what was wrong with him, why his words were unintelligible, why he always smiled and walked away when I asked how he was doing. Tiene problemas, she said, pointing to her head. He has problems. She smiled awkwardly, masking regret behind friendly eyes.

Just as I was about to leave my room and ask Sofia if she could practice sometime later, I heard the phone ring. “Melania!” Eduardo growled menacingly from his bedroom, the throaty garble echoing down the hallway. She didn’t need to be told twice to pick it up. “Hola? Un momento.” Her tone then changed, as she yelled sharply, “Davíd! Tele!”

I took the phone back to my room and closed the door. The sound of the recorder stopped. Cecilia flicked off the television. All I could hear was the painful ticking of the grandfather clock in the living room. I waited, afraid to make a sound in the sudden silence. They were waiting, too. I suddenly wondered if Cecilia was telling the truth when she claimed that she did not speak English. I opened and shut my dresser drawer, hoping the sharp creak would break the ice and return the family from suspended animation. I could feel their eyes on me, though it was impossible to see through the glass. I heard my mom’s voice through the receiver — that soft, faraway whisper typically reserved for the moments just before you hang up on someone. What’s Dave doing? Is it the right house? A knife clattered to the floor in the kitchen with a metallic clink. “I have to call you back,” I whispered into the receiver. I hung up and left the house. They must have seen me through the front window as I half-ran down the street to find a public phone.

***

Since my world in that house was bound by sound, I began to avoid making noise at all costs. Even when I could hear the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen as Melania fixed dinner, or the slow shuffling of slippers as Eduardo moved from his bedroom to the bathroom, I could also somehow hear them watching, waiting for me to move. While reading mystery novels in bed at night, I turned pages with the utmost care to minimize the flapping and rubbing sound of the paper. I opened and closed my creaky dresser drawers with a marksman’s precision, and tiptoed from my bed to the bathroom, even in the middle of the day. Silence, I soon realized, was a double-edged sword.

Still, I began to appreciate it. On Sundays, the day Melania had off, the family went to church all day. Rather than leave the house, I stayed in bed, listening to the peace. The whirr of a motocicleta outside the front door. The faraway shouts of niños embroiled in a partido de fútbol. The soft breathing of my girlfriend, Alessandra, asleep next to me. I usually stayed awake, though, my eyes fixed to the space at the top of the door.

But the Sunday before I left, the front door opened with a bang, jolting us from our reverie. They were back early. Ale and I froze. We quickly slid from the bed to the adjoining bathroom, moving silently. Alessandra looked downward, fingering the crucifix that dangled from her necklace. Eyes red, she couldn’t even look at me. I slid the one-foot-wide bathroom window open but, like so many of the windows on this crime-ridden block, it was protected by metal bars.

I panicked, frantically scribbling escape plans on a piece of toilet paper to prevent Cecilia from hearing either our voices or our deafening movements. Voy a pedir leche — vas a salir a través la puerta. I’ll go out and ask for some milk while you go out the front door, I wrote. Voy a fingir una enfermedad. No va a averiguar. Va a estar bien. I’ll pretend to be sick. She won’t find out. It’ll be okay.

Finally I forced myself to move, opening the bedroom door without making a sound. The living room was empty. I gestured frantically to Alessandra, who had moved from the bathroom to the bedroom. Move! Now! I ushered her outside, slamming the front door behind me. We looked at each other, not speaking, as a tear rolled down her cheek. I pressed my ear to the door, but didn’t hear a sound.

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