by Ashley Seitz Kramer
Carl is always saying I don’t listen. On the worst days, he makes a point to say that I hear him, but I don’t listen. I find it confusing. Much if not most of what we do when we’re together is talk, and talking requires listening. Sometimes I talk and he listens; sometimes he talks and I listen.
Sometimes when I talk, I listen to myself and I’m surprised by what I hear. The other day I was talking about my friend Jessica, and it sounded like I didn’t like her anymore, or maybe I never had, and that made me curious. I couldn’t think of how we became friends exactly, or what we had in common, or how she made me happy—even in small ways. When she called me, I experienced dread.
Now, when Carl is talking—about his day, his problems, his friends or his teenage daughter—I try extra hard to show that I am listening. I look at his face intently, the entire time, and I watch his hand movements. I try to notice if his tone or pitch changes without him realizing it. Sometimes I try so hard to prove that I’m listening well that I forget to listen to the words themselves, the what, and this is maybe why Carl is mad.
But if Carl would listen to himself, I think he would hear how much more important it is for Carl to hear Carl talk. Maybe then he would hear that he says his daughter’s name, Sheila, far more sadly than anyone might expect, as if he can’t quite endure both syllables, Shee-lah, the one syllable opening a door to the other. Since my name is Sandra, he often has to pause before saying either name or he’ll say the one when he means the other. He knows this upsets me but not because I’ve ever said so. He mixed up our names once, he called me Shee-lah, and I went to sit on the back porch with a glass of iced tea and I stared at the yard and the trees. I took great interest in what the birds were doing, and I took great pains to note the changing sky, all those colors, and it seemed to me that Carl was wrong about hearing, or maybe he was wrong about listening. What I mean is that he was insistent about listening to the wrong things. I froze my face in a glare, even though I hated when I did that, and I couldn’t undo it, and I couldn’t reshape it. I was sullen, and I wanted to be sullen. For once I wanted to draw my line in the sand, whatever that means, and demonstrate my own belief about listening, which is that it’s just as dangerous as it is comforting, and most of what is heard is misremembered anyway. So let’s just sit like this—you and me, Carl, are you listening, Carl?—and contemplate the absence of fireworks in the absence of a holiday. Let’s celebrate the forgetting of cruel accusations and how we only halfway hear them the first time.
Ashley Seitz Kramer, originally from Ohio, has won numerous awards including the Ruth Stone Prize, the Schiff Prize, the Utah Writers’ Contest, and most recently the 2014 Zone 3 Press First Book Award. Her book, Museum of Distance, is forthcoming in 2015. Her work is published in Colorado Review, Quarterly West, Western Humanities Reviews, Parcel, The Burnside Review, Anti-, The Southeast Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She’s taught college writing for over a decade and now teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she is Assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences.