CRICKETS: A LOVE SONG IN SIX PARTS
(2014 Essay Contest Winner)
Crickets eat their own dead. That is, usually, they wait until their dead are fully dead; in circumstances where the crickets are out of decaying plant matter or fungi or their other usual sources of nourishment, they've been known to circle and stalk and finish off the dying, and then they eat them. To the cricket, the dead or dying is as good as soil; they are creatures less a soul, less a moral code, with four different strata of chirps to take them from first sight to fucking. They chirp by rubbing their fringed wings together, like violinists in their own shivery symphonies. Usually, only the male crickets chirp; some strident females have been known to bustle into the cacophony, but the songs are meant for the traditional courtship, where the man is in charge. I have recently been entangling myself in some versions of courtship where nobody is in charge, where the cars are all without drivers, where less is said than is left unsaid, and where quiet is the order of the day.
I watched an episode of How I Met Your Mother with the laugh track surgically removed, and where the jokes are supposed to land it is glaringly obvious that some fall flat. I know laughter, like yawning, is contagious, because of those paroxysmal moments where some dumb joke gets exponentially funnier the more you can't stop laughing at it—so this is where the laugh tracks come in, to prompt us to find things funnier than we would otherwise. I think I would prefer all these sitcoms with the laughter removed but the silences intact. Perhaps sometimes the sound director could insert canned cricket songs instead of canned hilarity. He could choose from four separate songs, and could exercise some real artistic genius in the process.
The first cricket song is for calling, and it is loud and clamorous and constant, and it repels other males and attracts females—it's a posturing, proud bluff of a song, and one the female hears through the ear-like structures located in the backs of her knees. It's this type of song that all animals share—the mating dance. This song could be used in sitcom scenes where the characters take a lot of shots and go to clubs and yell over the music while grinding groin-to-groin and have funny misunderstandings and sloppy makeouts and sometimes fall immediately in love when the blue light hits their faces rather than the pink.
The second song is for courting. It is much quieter and is used for purposes of real seduction, most swagger cast aside like molting skin. In television, it could provide the tone for the transitional time of a date when the bluster of the bar is left in the blurry pre-drunk desert of the night, and the quiet of the car envelops the nervous couple like a dark blanket. It could be seamlessly implemented as the backing music for the first tentative touch of the face, the upturning of the lips, the hesitant feminine laugh.
The third cricket song is an aggressive one that the male cricket has no control over; he releases it when another male is near, and the chemoreceptors on his antennae begin to bristle, and he starts his angry predatory keening. It almost begs to soundtrack the vodka-fueled shove at the back of the bar when another guy's eyeing the main guy's girl, or even—in the Serious Episode—an ill-advised revving up of his engine as he gets behind the wheel a few Coors Lights too deep to really be driving and ends up bisecting a lamppost.
And the fourth cricket song is the post-coital cigarette of cricket songs, the song they both release after successfully mating. Maybe this is the only song the female cricket feels like she knows the words to; maybe the other three are relegated to the desperation of pursuit, and hers is kept somewhere silently, tucked along the comb-like fringes of her wings, waiting for the opportune time to be born. It is obvious where this song could be inserted to replace the laugh track. In the bedroom; in the shower; as the quirky girl with the bangs pees directly after sex to prevent UTIs; in the reluctant friend-date that turns into something enthusiastic and strewn with roses. In the cigarette moments, as the smoke from both cliché cigarettes intertwines over their heads, and represents something real.
It's the first day of June, which means it'll be summer in three weeks, and a hangover is dampening my brain. I was going to say “ringing in my head,” but that sounded too merry and electric. I'm in a dehydrated fog under the automatic light of my office. I have been studying my arms for some time now. They look spray-tanned. Yesterday Peter and I sat on the beach for four hours talking about ethics and math and watching people learn how to stand-up paddleboard. The waves have been bigger than usual this summer thanks to faraway hurricanes, and as we doze silently in the sun I think about the way a tsunami starts, miles from land: as a bucking of plates and a shiver on the surface. Peter is home for the summer from his great books school. I've known him for eight years, which is a long time for me.
With one long finger Peter drew circles and radii in the sand to show me how to prove the Pythagorean Theorem. I know the two-dimensional version of it: a² + b² = c². After spending most of my life as a student of word I have recently found myself obligated to teach math on occasion. It has been a staggering refreshment. I had forgotten that sometimes answers are just correct, with no qualifications or attendant queries; sometimes you can plug the answer into the problem backwards and arrive, breathtakingly, at the question. I was enjoying this certainty. But looking at the symbols in the sand, I had to learn all over again that certainty is only the first layer of it. Math has a language too, one you have to learn, one whose rhythms, if we could translate them into speech, might make rhetoric obsolete. I pretended to understand his explanation, and did, after a fashion. I decided maybe answers and questions are two sides of the same Mobius strip. The outer pigment of my skin darkened imperceptibly.
We gave up on math and drank rum from a silver flask with a compass on it, and the waves broke a little too close to shore, and the water was radiantly warm and the sun crisped the skin on my arms and legs to the electric brown of an artificial tan. I am waiting for it to fade from this shoddy quick slap of orange into something more realistic. It is currently the kind of tan that looks best in black and white. After the rum took hold, before I went underwater, I said I thought every generation develops its own apocalypse, although I think ours might be the first to bring it to completion. Underwater it was quiet. There was a slight roar from all directions, more like laughter than crickets.
For years now each time I go into the ocean I think of the Bloop, that mysterious, continuous, low pulsing sound picked up by hydrophonic microphones, over 5,000 km apart. The theory went, for the excitable, that perhaps it was a creature: something long dormant, awakening from a restless sleep. Horror fans were quick to point out that the Bloop's location, triangulated, put it less than 2,000 km from the fictional location of the sunken city of R'lyeh, home to the hibernating dark god Cthulhu. It was a last beautiful cryptid, the specter perpetually haunting that famously unexplored 95% of ocean we just can't get around to. Recent evidence has proven what scientists really figured all along: the sound comes from the slow breakup of a massive ice shelf splitting from Antarctica. I was disappointed when I found that out. The Bloop, as a mystery, was a comfort: sure, it wasn't likely to be supernatural, but until it had been definitively explained by science, well, there are more things in heaven and earth.
I explained this to Peter back on the shore. He was a Lovecraft fan, although he preferred the stories that took place on land, the ones whose monsters were just similar enough to humans to be virtually indistinguishable. This may be because he is a realist. Then again, it may prove just the opposite. The emphasis of his university's curriculum, as I understand it—as possibly any outsider might—is on understanding the why of things, and the how: pulling apart the slack skin of statements and theories and exposing the quivering skeleton underneath. They discuss discussion, analyze analysis; they apply the first creation myths to scientific and psychological trends of millennia past, and draw them in careful interlocking skeins toward the present. They don't just learn each mathematical formula: they prove it, over and over, in front of their peers, until (again, as it seems to me, a wide-eyed wondering layperson) the whole universe is suddenly splashed out in front of them, and every part works in harmony, and everyone knows why. And then every year they have a three-day party with lots of hallucinogenic drugs.
Peter said many of his classmates, in the first fresh blush of excitement that surfaces when they come face-to-face with their esoteric curriculum, transfer theorems and proofs and Greek letters to their skin. Most of them pay for their tattoos at a reputable establishment. Some rely on whiskey-drunk roommates armed with needles sterilized in the flash of a lighter and ink from the art section of the campus bookstore. Peter wants to get a tattoo that says "this tattoo means nothing" in Greek. I told him just a few yesterdays ago I was thinking about doing that with Latin. I'll never, probably, get a tattoo, because if this is the kind of shit we are seriously considering putting on our bodies—an arch punchline, a meaningless symbol that maybe once hearkened to something divine but now rests sullenly in the realm of irony and snark—I'd rather spend the money on something ephemeral and regrettable, like scotch, or tickets to a festival where I've only heard of an eighth of the bands, or an obsidian knife whose sole purpose is to look pretty on my bookshelf. Or a seven-box-set season of How I Met Your Mother with all the laugh tracks removed.
On land, a noise like the Bloop would go unnoticed. Surely many do. Among the multitude of noises that weave the soundscape of our lives, the sort of slow, quiet, elemental roar that characterizes the Bloop would pass below the radar as a hum too low to register, relegated to the auditory channel of washing machines, refrigerators, traffic. Those who live near highways or under flight paths know something of this static resignation, and of the specific distinction between silence and quiet. The man who sleeps in a small house rattled by passing trains finds it hard to sleep in the cubicle silence of hotels: he wakes, hourly, straining for the white noise that's become his lullaby. And silence, although it's something we fill endlessly with our discussion about how we'd love to have more of it, is scary. True silence exists, if at all, miles underwater, or in the depths of space: the solemn water at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, or black holes boiling into nothingness. I find it briefly under each breaking wave. It's not silence enough—especially not with the roar of the white horses bubbling feet above me—but it's close.
Some of Peter's friends from school road-tripped out here for spring break, and I met them at his house. I had come too late for the steak; charred streaks of grease coated the frying pan languishing in the lukewarm sink. I released some wine from a box into a cup. Boxed wine comes from the worst grapes—the also-ran, the muddy drivel at the bottom of the vineyard. We used to drink it constantly in college, because it's cheap and endless. The flavor is so automatic to me I barely taste it anymore, the way you can know a song so well, and love it so intensely, that it gradually stops making any impression on your brain. I have sung entire albums to myself while driving up and down the needled coast and only when I parked realized I hadn't been listening to anything.
I find it hard to be alone with my thoughts, obsessively spiraling as they are, and so I tend to put on music while alone, which contributes to the issue. Once while driving a visiting friend around Los Angeles, I put on music until he slammed it off, then apologized for his instinct, but said he just wanted to listen to nothing—and I took offense, thinking he meant silence was preferable to conversation with me, but then I realized he just wanted to listen to nothing. Silence can be its own hypnotic music, I guess. I still don't get comfortable with it quickly. There is a reason we call some silences pregnant—they have whole bodies inside them waiting to get out. And a recent study has been going around the Internet that says most people would rather suffer intermittent electric shocks than sit quietly in a room with themselves.
But there is of course a difference between quiet and silence. Quiet places—waiting rooms, churches, empty elevators—are not silent. They hum with a sinister energy. Sure, occasionally, quiet can be the calm bright stillness of dawn, of waking up before the birds; more often, it's the haunted, choking anticipation of something going terribly wrong. "It's quiet," says the little kid, playing gangster or pirate or warrior; "...too quiet," finishes his friend, with gleeful solemnity, as they hunch and spin, ready to take on the invisible enemy creeping up from behind. This sensation never quite goes away, no matter how much we try to shake it: quiet, too quiet, is an itchy, doomed sensation, the moment in the movie before the knife comes down. But it can easily be disrupted by a car alarm, a slammed door, your own hesitant voice calling out a name. The intrusion of sound helps you regain your senses. It helps you reassure yourself that your hearing is intact, and that the enemies are, in fact, invisible. True silence, on the other hand, can't be interrupted. It's impenetrable, terrifying in its seamlessness: a blank colorless everywhere shawl. But seductive, for all that.
I have come to regard the freeway system of Los Angeles as a tender map of my own external arteries; a selfish perception, to be sure, but then, I'm in the right place to be selfish. The hypnotic flow of traffic, the momentary exhilaration, brief as a blink and powerful as being caught beneath a wave, that shocks you with its smoothness as you accelerate into the fast lane. And then the dim hum of acceding to the stops and starts, the (if you're lucky) off-peak minutes where you cruise under the green signs showing you where, if you wanted to, you could get off.
My commute is the same, whether to work or bars or houses or museums or beaches—it's the same signs, the same cars merging without signaling, the same Piolin and Mystery Spot and Honk If You Love City Lights bumper stickers poking bright through the smoggy sunset. Even in parking-lot traffic when the sun is throwing its crazy glare on all of us I rarely feel small for the recognition of the many thousands of others in my vicinity. I feel, weirdly, at home: I roll the windows down and bump the music up and smile benevolently, or nod in my lost-and-found sunglasses, my hand unconsciously following the beat on the dusty side of my driver's side door, or on the steering wheel, eyes glazed over, taking in political slogans and HBO billboards and exhaust.
There is probably a reason I gravitate towards the anonymity of traffic, of exit signs and lane changes and U-turns and green lights. It is presumably the same thing that pushes me towards wine and the deep pockets of the ocean. A desire to, for as long as possible, submerge.
I've become careless when shaving my legs, sometimes on purpose, to note the interesting dull pain that comes when you scrape off a sliver of flesh. Like the few seconds in between stubbing a toe and the sour thud it leaves on your nerves, it takes a moment for your brain to recognize what you've done, but then the blood rushes to the surface of the skin with its noisy joy. The Aztecs would sacrifice people of other tribes to a god with a seven-syllable name and, it seems, a nearly unquenchable thirst for human blood. They spent whole weekends slitting sternums with obsidian knives. We spend whole weekends quenching our own indistinct thirsts, with wine and movies instead of blood, or with blood from places other than the sternum. It turns pink in water and runs down the drain and there's never enough of it to leave a scar.
Back at Peter's house over spring break I drank the boxed wine from a coffee mug and listened to shrill art girls try to prove themselves. One of them said, since she's been reading ancient philosophy for a year, novels no longer hold anything for her. I think that's bullshit, but I was a college freshman once, too. This girl starts talking about Euclidean geometry. They have to memorize the proofs (pages long, some of them) and present them in front of the class. There are 600 people in the entire student body. A girl I know who transferred from this school to my university halfway through undergraduate described it as "a bunch of people fucking and getting high on a plateau." There is a 60% completion rate. I bless them silently with my outsider's pointless grace. I am in no position to bestow blessings.
I have been teaching one of my students about the Vietnam War for the past three days. She wants to know the Who, the When, and the Where; the How and the Why won't be as important on her multiple-choice test. We make flashcards. I explain about napalm, post-traumatic stress disorder, guerilla warfare, none of which she will be tested on, and she nods, and listens with genuine interest, and then we go back to memorizing the dates of massacres.
Driving north still holds the same elemental mystery, even in this era of in-car Bluetooth and the ability to check in on Facebook at any number of historic locations on the way up to Big Sur. At night it's still comforting to drive right along the edge of the map, to see out the window the bay in its smoggy sweep, like a postcard of last days. A horizon so smudged by red dust it may as well be anywhere; the lights blinking out in the darkness as likely to be airplanes coming in to LAX as the red lamps atop barges. Past the city limits, the oil rigs sit fat and stalwart on the horizon, just after the place where the PCH veers through a rock whose better half rests, where it tumbled, in the water. A few miles north of that is the spit of land with barbed wire around it and what looks like a military base of some sort, and the thin blocked-off road that coasts to it through the water is lined with spindly palm trees. A few miles north of that is a town which used to extend much further into the hills, till a mid-90s landslide dropped a mountaintop onto it, sluicing tsunamis of mud and rock onto houses with whole families inside. Whenever we drove past on the way to Santa Barbara my dad told the story of one guy, who'd just gone to the convenience store at the end of the road to buy milk, who returned to find his entire house and wife and kids entombed under a hill of black silt.
The ocean is simultaneously metaphor and element, blank and comfortless and somehow the only answer that also includes all its questions. Questions like the giant squid. The tendency of invertebrates and other creatures in the depths of the ocean to grow to much larger sizes than their shallow-water counterparts is known as abyssal gigantism. It's most immediately recognizable in the giant squid. It's hard to study most deep-sea life, not least because the creatures themselves are damn elusive: since 1545, only 648 giant squid specimens have been reliably reported, and far fewer have been available for scientific study. It follows that there's no satisfactory explanation for this inclination to bigness. Yet the giant squid remains the poster child for big, creepy undersea life. Consider, in Florida two years ago, the Frisbee-sized eyeball washing up on a beach: temperate, intelligent, blue. Imagine, emerging from the wet indigo depths, the wicked beak poised to crush your skull like a grape. A theory has been proposed that the creatures grow to massive proportions in the deepest reaches of the ocean for the simple reason that there is nothing holding them back. With miles of water over their heads, they are free to expand, to wave their sightless tentacles around in the dark-to, like Alice, attain a reasonable proportion with their surroundings. Because the ocean is big, staggeringly big, and wild and blue and vastly last-frontier; and, furthermore, as the squids seem to be saying, why the hell not?
However banal the metaphor of the ocean for love, death, sex, time, hell, language or any of the other million things it can flightily represent, there's a reason it shows up in poems as often as the moon, as often as birds. The vast majority of it remains unseen, too dark or deep for our instruments to adequately probe. It's that mystery that lifts from breakers on rocks, curls around lethal-pronged jellyfish in warm southern seas, congeals at the poles and slackens warm at the fat waist of the globe. Looking at the ocean at night from some cold island motel, from some hushed boat rocking on its thin anchor, is like looking at the sky far from the star-killing haze of cities: you remember how much is there, and how infinitely mute.
It helps you understand why the ancient philosophers thought the world was flat—why they spoke of its end in a geographical sense rather than an eschatological, and why they feared their ships going too close to the edge. There, on the brink of the continent, on the line where the map turns from green to blue, the possibilities for silence are apocalyptic.
Crickets eat their own dead. In the animal kingdom this act is not as fraught with moral complications as in ours. And yet when it does happen, in our society, it is often understandable. The Donner Party, miserable in the feverish snow; Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 blistering its wings against a mountain in 1972, plummeting and breaking apart. In the regions near where the plane went down, crickets are considered a sign of bad luck, and a chirping cricket in a house will be stalked and isolated as the inhabitants follow its telltale noise; whether it's calling or courting or copulating, they squash it, so it won't reproduce.
Flight 571 has different names depending on where it is referred to. In America, and in the annals of plane crashes and other catastrophes, it's usually called the Andes flight disaster; in South America, where it actually happened, it's called El milagro de los Andes. The Miracle of the Andes. And over the border, beyond the treeline, where the plane was supposed to land, there are even now people lying awake at night wanting windfalls and omens, wanting to fight and fuck and feel at home somewhere, wanting to know their own songs, feeling sweat in the pockets behind their knees where crickets feel sound. In other places, crickets can mean money's coming soon (if they're gray) or to not stop hoping (if they're green).
Buddy Holly, before his own plane went down in Clear Lake, Iowa on the Day the Music Died, fronted a band called The Crickets. And Don McLean has his own version of their sorrowful chirping in his perennial karaoke ballad about that Day: Not a word was spoken. The church bells all were broken.
Somewhere in that last-stanza silence, after the teenage dreamers have had their sexual awakening behind the bleachers, after the devil's shown up at the Homecoming dance, after the levee's been drained and the boys in the Chevy have drunk their whiskey dry-in that static absence of sound, there's one sub-level stratosphere of noise you can hear if you listen closely. It's closer to the courtship than the call: something quiet, sexy, mournful, and electric. Something acknowledging that silence is only comforting without an edge, and when it's sudden and unexpected, it's more sinister than anything else. Through all the interpretations, of course, the damn crickets are just doing their thing-cycling through their songs, working their little wing-violins, waiting for their dying to be dead.
I started writing this piece in a futile effort to explore the distinction between silence and quiet. The semantic exercise soon began to seem less important than the tiny connections I was discovering between disparate things—anglerfish, mythology, the seductive labyrinth of L.A.'s freeways. The only way I could justify these connections was to shrug, throw them together, celebrate the cracks, and remember the original definition of essay: to attempt. I'd also like to shout out my friend Bucky, who, in response to an insomniac Facebook message over a year ago asking for a writing prompt, passed along the last one he'd received (which I sincerely hope I have halfway fulfilled): "write something about crickets that doesn't suck."