Separation Anxiety on Quiet Nights


Havre de Grace. -- In the middle of a hot night in the middle of a hot week, I am awakened by something. And because this has happened before, I realize almost instantly what it is. It's the quiet.

It's an odd kind of quiet that lies over and around the house this summer on certain nights. It's felt rather than heard. It's a sense that something is missing, but not necessarily a noisy something. What has startled me out of my sleep is only a quiet, not a silence. Most of the sounds I associate with a summer night in this familiar house are still there.

The bedroom windows are all wide open, and although the night is absolutely still, a faint breeze is coming in, drawn by the big exhaust fan that's humming away up in the attic. I think I can hear the fan hum, but that may be the air conditioner in what we call the family room. It's our only air-conditioned room, and Irna sensibly has gone there to sleep on the couch.

There are other electric noises too. In the living room the French ceiling fan I brought back from Saigon is still going wucka-squeak-wucka-squeak as it churns the heavy air. I forgot to turn it off when I went to bed. And in the cellar the water pump kicks on briefly. It's on a pressure switch, so when it starts up in the middle of the night it often means a faucet's dripping or a toilet is running. I'll check in the morning.

"A house is a machine for living in," wrote the architect Le Corbusier. I never thought of mine that way, but in the middle of night it does sound very mechanical.

There are flesh-and-blood sounds too. Outside the window on the west side I can hear horses. They're grazing steadily, hungrily, very close to the house. The flies are so bad in the daytime right now that the horses spend all day in the dark of their shed, where the flies won't follow them, and only come out into the pasture after sunset. Then they're ravenous.

Because they have upper and lower teeth and bite the grass as well as tearing it, horses sound different from cattle when they graze. They're not as vocal, either. In addition to the chomping noises, I hear only the stamping of feet and an occasional snort. Cows, especially those with calves, are much noisier.

The quiet that has awakened me on this July night is something deeper than the electric hums and the grazing sounds. It's there even as the katydids chatter, the bullfrogs over near the pond bellow steadily, the rabbit in the hutch kicks her plastic dish and the dog asleep on the porch turns over and rattles his nails on the floorboards. It's the sound of the house's sudden emptiness.

Irna and I are alone here just now, with one child away at a summer job and another spending two weeks at camp. With only two human inhabitants the house sounds different, feels different. And in the middle of the night the difference is enough to wake me up.

It's a kind of inverted homesickness I'm experiencing, I suppose. When everyone's home I sleep better, or think I do. With the two rooms at the north end of the house now empty, though only temporarily, there's a faint sense that things aren't quite in balance.

Recently I wrote a letter to the child at camp about homesickness. At the time, I thought I was doing so because I was worried about her; when we drove out the lane I'd noticed how closely she was looking around her, as though to make sure she'd remember it all. But she sounds in her letters as though she's having a great time, and I imagine I wrote about it for myself as much as for her.

With me homesickness -- I think the shrinks call it "separation anxiety" -- is chronic, like some people's dandruff. It's supposed to be a childhood affliction, and although I had it as a child, I never quite got rid of it when I grew up. I had intermittent recurrences when I was in college, and then again as an adult when I worked for long periods in faraway parts of the world.

Now that I live at home again, it ought to be in remission. But I still sometimes feel a twinge of it at odd times, such as when I'm leaving for vacation -- or being awakened in the middle of the night by the strange quiet in my own house.

At least this current sense of emptiness is temporary. One of the missing occupants will be home this weekend, the other the weekend after. Soon we'll all be stepping on each other again, family clutter will be everywhere, and I'll be wondering if we shouldn't build an addition.

One day, I guess, the deeper quiet will be back to stay. I'm not sure I like that prospect, but this isn't the time to worry about it. It seems cooler in the house now, and I get up in the dark and turn off the squeaky old fan.


Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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