This Is Us

I Miss Eavesdropping

It really is the little things, apparently

An illustration of various female faces in a seamless pattern.
An illustration of various female faces in a seamless pattern.
Photo: ANASTASIIA DMITRIEVA/Getty Images

AA few weeks ago, I was at a crowded restaurant with two friends, sharing a pizza and attempting to focus on their stories while simultaneously trying to understand why the woman two tables away was crying.

It’s surreal how that entire sentence doesn’t… exist right now. Crowded restaurant, friends, huddled together with barely a foot between us. Strangers doing the same thing a few feet away. A young woman around my age with three men who seemed like her brothers, though they probably weren’t. As she began crying and gazing out the window, my attention shifted. Why was she crying? I focused, trying to listen despite the music and my own tablemates’ conversation. I crafted elaborate ideas in my head about how the four were related, who she was crying about. They paid the check and moved to leave, and I watched them hug outside the restaurant on the sidewalk. She walked away with one, the other two went the opposite direction.

I loved these small windows into other people’s lives.

NNew York City shut down slowly, and then all at once. There were the obvious things to miss and grieve: birthday parties, vacations, family dinners, movie nights. There were the things you didn’t realize you’d miss: 3D meetings with colleagues, standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the grocery store, petting a stranger’s dog in the elevator.

The big connections disappeared quickly. The small connections faded, quietly sliding into the background while we all wondered why we felt so alone.

I miss eavesdropping.

I was the person reading someone’s text messages over their shoulder on the subway, or listening to silence through my headphones at a coffee shop so that people at the next table would feel comfortable having their conversation at full volume. In parks, I listened to people on walks or sitting on benches as they discussed their marriages, their divorces, their bosses. I shared smiles with people who were like me — overhearing pieces of a stranger’s life, finding something we could relate to, sharing a moment of recognition.

I don’t live alone. Why not just listen in on your partner’s conversations? He paces around the bedroom, on the phone with his mom or friend or coworker. I can hear him. It’s not the same.

Eavesdropping is about connecting the dots. Catching snippets of a conversation or one side of an argument, and letting your mind wander to fill in the gaps. Hearing names and places and dates you have no context for, and allowing these fleeting details to weave themselves together in your brain. It’s about listening in on an experience you’ve never lived through. It’s like watching a movie where every third line is cut, where entire scenes are missing. But it’s there, it’s alive, and you watch.

I miss hearing about the mundanity of life through another person’s eyes.

New York City was the best place to eavesdrop.

Late at night on the subway, a group of friends complain about how far they have to travel for a goodbye party.

Next to me on the bus, a woman texts… someone. Rapidly. Green bubbles flood her side of the screen as she rants and rants, letting out her emotions. I catch every few words.

A family is amazed by how crowded Grand Central Station is—they’re here from somewhere else. Maybe Tennessee, maybe Ohio, maybe Arizona. They’ve seen this in pictures. The brother is arguing with his sister.

There are things I can hear but not understand, because I don’t speak the language. I have to eavesdrop on the emotions underneath, on the intonation and the gestures.

There is so much crying. Always crying.

There are people who carry on whole conversations with dogs, with babies, people who you think are talking to themselves only to realize they have those tiny earbuds in.

There are people planning meals in the grocery store aisles, excited to cook things I would never attempt.

These half-scenes and unfinished scripts are gone, for now, and I miss them. I miss hearing about the mundanity of life through another person’s eyes.

TThe city is starting to resemble a movie set at 6 a.m., where no extras have shown up yet. No horns honking, no groups of friends walking toward you and taking up the entire width of the sidewalk. It’s possible everyone has turned to screens; the thin walls between my apartment and my neighbor’s only let in static and commercial jingles. It’s possible no one has anything left to say.

It’s possible that if there were anyone to eavesdrop on, faces uncovered and inches apart, we would all be saying the same things: How long will this last? Did she get tested? How are your parents? What do you know? What do any of us know?

We’re experiencing something so deeply universal that there is nothing you could say that I wouldn’t understand. There’s no half of a phone conversation I wouldn’t be able to complete in my head. Maybe not detail-for-detail, but I’d get the general idea. There are no dots to connect, just thick lines all leading back to the virus.

The dots will come back, though. We will talk in public again, we will complain loudly on subways and call our parents from the sidewalk and run with friends in the park and cry in restaurants. And I can’t wait to listen in.

Audience Development at Medium / Previously: Time Inc., Real Simple, childhood

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