Silence sometimes feels like nothing at all. Every day we fire off a thousand texts that never get returned, conversations with friends or family or housemates or colleagues ebbing and flowing without much thought of who wrote last or what they said; digital small talk.
When we desperately want someone to reply, though, silence begins to feel more loaded. Sometimes we start to become obsessed; we check whether our message has been read over and over again; we put our phones down but end up thinking about them anyway. The burden of waiting is almost tangible: it sticks to us like ink on our fingers, sends us half-frenzied with unmoored want. It consumes our thoughts.
So powerful is this feeling that if our phones finally do ring during this purgatory, it can cause a genuine and often extreme physical response. Early this year, after months of not speaking to someone who I had once designated their own special ring- and text-tones, hearing the sound when they messaged unexpectedly was like being shaken; a true jolt. My heart started racing and I felt a spike of nausea slice through my chest; I truly thought I was going to be sick.
Their non-presence had felt so substantial; I’d carried it with me like a trinket, trailed it around behind me like a security blanket, watching it get shabbier every day. This absence being pierced so palpably by a chirpy text alert didn’t seem right; it didn’t fit the grand story of love and loss I’d told myself at all.
Because, in their lengthy absence, I had started to write a story that it turned out had never really been true at all. I had overstated to myself how much I’d really loved them, how well we’d got on; I’d found meaning in old messages that had no meaning at all. Eventually, contact resumed, I realised that I’d created them out of thin air, and the relationship I’d craved to rekindle for so long finally fizzled and died of its own accord. The person I’d grieved, who I’d carried solemnly with me every day, was an avatar for something else entirely; technology, with all its noise, had made the silence feel bigger than it really was.
I talk with my friend Faridah about it and she teaches me the word ‘confabulation’. “Like when people have amnesia,” she explains. “It’s a defence mechanism for the brain to make things up to explain the gaps in memory because the concept that you have no idea what happened is so terrifying.”
And what is silence if not a gap? What is non-communication if not a blankness, a blackness, a void? When our primary communication with a person is online and then it suddenly stops, there’s nothing left at all: a cavity. Of course we feel the need to fill that gap with someone or something else; of course we project onto the other person; of course we misinterpret the endless, pointless clues they left for us in their emails, their voice notes, in the photos they sent us, in our call logs.
We leave so many traces of ourselves online, too, that we’re never really gone; we can never really disappear from someone’s life. Someone might stop replying to us, but chances are they’ll still be posting pictures of themselves, still be tweeting, still exist in some form online. They’re not really gone, then; they’re half-there, a manifestation of something we can’t touch but long to; a hologram that glitters on our fingers but disappears as soon as we close our fist.
Barthes describes waiting as a delirium; “the being I am waiting for is not real,” he writes. “I create and re-create it over and over, starting from my capacity to love, starting from my need for it.” There are echoes of this in the way we wait for replies that, deep down, we know are probably not going to come and will never really fulfil us even if they do. Because sometimes we’re waiting for someone that doesn’t exist: sometimes we’re waiting for a version of ourselves that we’ve projected onto someone else.
Sometimes you think you’ve created an intimacy with someone: look closer, though, and you find that the only person who was there all along was you.
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