In comparison home was no place to be. It was noiseless and unbearable. No one spoke at meals. And no one asked about another's day, much less about how one might be feeling. Worse, there was no place in her home to hide or go that was far enough away to escape the crushing quiet, the fears that accompanied it, or long nights spent staring at the tiles on her bedroom ceiling -- 10 rows across, 15 down, 150 total, 75 white, 75 black, 25 cracked.
But the sounds that engulfed her outside of her home she could hide in, revel in, creating a world that was hers alone. Sound made sense, it provided her with both and anchor and a lifeline. Sound could be classified, explained, and organized, whereas regular life could not. It was too messy and unpredictable. People came and went, emotions changed from one moment to the next, relationships were unmanageable, and Fern wanted nothing to do with this. With sound came purpose, and with purpose the world.
Fern decided to start recording the sounds. She bought little tape recorders that she attached to her feet so she could capture the resulting crunch as she walked through the day-old snow in Central Park, then slipped them into her pockets while on the 3 train so she could record random snippets of conversation as she came home from her administrative assistant job with a realtor off Broadway and West 35th.
"So, you slept with her?"
"Are you going to tell your wife?"
"No, I don't want to hurt her."
"That's very generous of you."
"I think so."
I met Fern at the Dive Bar up on Amsterdam. I was looking to shoot some darts, drink some beer, and not much else, really. She was sitting in the back by the dartboards by herself, nursing some seltzer, a little smile on her face. I wouldn't normally approach someone like that, someone so clearly happy to be by themselves, but that smile, it was different, enigmatic, I had to know what was behind it.
"Anyone sitting here?" I asked.
"No," she said, "one minute."
She reached under the table and produced a tape recorder that she promptly turned off. She jotted some commentary into a little notebook and then turned her attention to me. "What are you doing?" I said.
"Capturing bar sounds," she said, "you know, bottles crashing into one another, pool balls ricocheting from one to the next, small talk, people washing dirty glasses."
"Why?" I said, now smiling myself.
"Because it makes me happy," she said.
We got pizza at Famous Famiglia down the street at 96th, bought some beers at the bodega around the corner, and went back to her place, a little studio apartment in a building down by the West Side Highway. The room was dominated by a futon bed and shelf after shelf of tapes divided into sections: dogs, both big and small; bus announcements; the clip-clop of horse drawn handsome cabs; and on and on. Fern invited me to listen to her collection and I stayed the night.
"Can you feel it?" Fern said again and again. "We're doing something great here, something wild, and crazy, and wonderful, we're creating something bigger then ourselves, something that will outlive us."
"Outlive us," I would say, "why would you even care about that, you're 25 years old."
"It's never too soon to think about your legacy. Don't you want to leave some kind of mark that you were here?"
"Did you know her?" the landlord asked me. He was a bald guy in a wife-beater T-shirt and blue Dickie's.
"Yes," I said. "Did?"
"She was run over by a bus on her way to work today," he said, "got her skirt caught in the chain of her bike. It's a shame, she was a funny, unusual kid."
"She was brilliant," I said, "and beautiful."
"Sure buddy," he said, "of course she was."
There was a memorial service for Fern and then her family took her home to be buried. I think of her all the time, when the rain hits the window, when some car slams on its breaks, when everyone is talking at once. I also think about her when nothing is happening at all, no movement, no sound, just silence, profound and sublime silence. She wouldn't have understood it, she had no time for silence, but she would have appreciated, I think, finding something in nothing, something wonderful to immerse yourself in when pain is the only other option. She knew just how important that kind of thing could be.