The thought occurred to me, as I was surreptitiously angling myself to better overhear a dull cafeteria conversation, that I might be losing my touch. I’d always been adept at listening in on private dialogue, especially when said dialogue is spoken so loudly the whole vicinity of strangers now has a stake in whether Helen got the apology and chicken enchilada she so rightfully deserves.
About a decade ago, on a school bus, I asked a friend this very question (“How are you supposed to not listen when people talk so loudly?”) and the bus driver shouted back “CLOSE YOUR EARS,” a response that startled me so much that I couldn’t process the irony of it until I’d thought through the logistics of the suggestion.
But it looked like “thou shalt not prop your ears open” was just another childhood lie you’re supposed to grow out of, because almost immediately after school started this semester, my creative writing professor assigned us to eavesdrop on strangers as homework. This “dialogue exercise,” created to enrich our observations of human behavior, also entailed transcribing conversation and then presumably reading it aloud for analysis next class. (For this exercise, he cancelled class for the second time in just over two weeks. The first time was the first day, when he was biking across Europe as research for his third novel—a much better excuse than him just being lazy, which I frankly thought was a good enough explanation to begin with.)
But for some reason that Tuesday afternoon, I found myself struggling with what had come so naturally before. I couldn’t overhear a thing. The student activity center was too loud. The few conversations on the street would magically fizz out within seconds of my approach, or participants would take sudden detours I couldn’t replicate. Students lounged outside on benches with their friends, quietly studying. I walked around for twenty minutes and had nothing.
I headed to my program’s office, where I’d been planning to type up and print the exercise, hoping I’d encounter promise along the way. No such luck. Five minutes later, I began to unpeel myself from the couch. And then—
“Hey! Oh, we failed.”
“Hey, I know!”
I practically fell backward into the couch. A friend of the student receptionist up front had entered the office, and now the girls were enthusiastically chatting about how they hadn’t hung out in forever. It was a Christmas miracle. I typed furiously, hoping they wouldn’t notice how my keyboard tapping was suspiciously in rhythm with the cadence of their conversation.
Excerpt of the scintillating dialogue
“It’s like, Megan!”
“I studied for a long time, too, it’s just… I forget.”
“Just… no one, everyone’s stressed out.”
“Any time is stressful.”
“Mine is too.”
I stopped once I got to the requisite two pages and entered the computer lab to print. By the time I emerged, the receptionist’s friend had left. I walked over to the printer up front and filled my information into the log while waiting for the print job to complete. Halfway through, I heard the rustle of papers and looked up.
To my absolute horror, I watched as the student receptionist, who I forgot sometimes organizes and files the print jobs, glanced at the transcript of a conversation she’d had not five minutes ago on a paper I’d conveniently titled “Eavesdropping Exercise.”
We made eye contact, the kind that speaks volumes. She knew I’d eavesdropped. I knew she’d read my paper. She knew I knew, I knew she knew. We knew we knew. And there was really nowhere to go from there, so we both did absolutely nothing and just parted ways, which I believe must be the textbook example of mutually assured destruction.
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