By Cathy Adams
The voices I heard when I was a child were brutish, sharp, and familiar. Our accent undulated like a truck rolling down a dirt road, trying to avoid potholes. Rarely heard in gentle tones we were loud and we competed to be heard over the dinner table, across the yard, through windows, and from the rolled down windows of cars. We rarely had conversations but marathons of blurting our responses without listening to what had been said before. Interrupting wasn’t bad manners; it was our mode of communication. Bad manners was not answering at all. As long as there was the whinnying sound of family throughout the house, everything was normal because silence meant discomfort. Communication meant yelling, and yelling was understood. It approached normal.
Listening was alien. We claimed to listen, but the lull between our words was only to allow us time to think of the next thing we wanted to say. With seven of us in a car, we could maintain at least three conversations at once, with each person contributing to at least two of them simultaneously. Speaking was the layered art of ending sentences atop the beginnings of new ones by people who were opponents to our ideas. I did not know how to wait to speak after another person had stopped until I was an adult.
Long after I grew up I realized the state of tension I’d lived in as a child in a house with so much noise. I tried my best to recreate it with my first boyfriend who stared at me when I cut him off in the gentlest of conversations. My energy was not met and raised, it simply fell into emptiness. My words slipped into perplexed silence with no one else’s to tangle with them, like a ball player trying to bounce his chest against another after a specular play but finding there was no one there to engage. Once when I was talking to a friend in college she reached the end of her rope with my speech habits. She slammed her drink on the table and demanded to know why I could not let her get a single sentence out without interrupting her. She didn’t do that to me, she sputtered, so why was I so rude? It was the first time I had been called out for my lack of social cues regarding speech. I had actually wondered a few times why she always stopped talking when I picked up the thread and spoke. It didn’t seem natural. Didn’t she know she was supposed to be slinging the line back at me just as soon as I let go of it if not a few words before? Hadn’t her family taught her how to talk this way the same as mine? I was too dumbstruck to speak, so I ended up letting her have her say completely. This was one of my first experiences with the power of silence because that was all I had for several seconds. I did begin speaking again, but my mind was on this brain searing announcement that she had just made. I have no memory of what I said next.
For the next week I remained astonished at my offense. I spoke because I was excited and had things to say that couldn’t wait, not even for seconds. My thoughts were so spellbinding they had to be uttered at the instant they entered my head. That was how I knew they were valuable and that others would be happy to suspend whatever inferior thoughts they had in order to hear my jewels of communication before they continued. I was delighted with my conversations, so why wouldn’t other people be as well? Until that moment, no one had even alluded to anything so preposterous. Was my friend’s outburst of frustration something that others had been too polite to express? Was my behavior, learned so succinctly from my mother, what made others look at us oddly in public? Was this talking over others what made people give my mother dirty looks and shake their heads when they thought our backs were turned? I’d long had a sneaking suspicion that we were different from other people, that somehow they knew things we didn’t, but when I observed them, in an attempt to discern what it was that made other people somehow more sophisticated, I couldn’t identify it because I was listening for content and not for style. I was trying desperately to get a handle on whatever it was that had escaped me so thoroughly for my entire upbringing that it had relegated me to the outskirts of social acceptability. It was in that moment that shards of suspicion finally came together to form an undeniable but growing picture that I had been doing something very wrong for a long, long time. Not everyone spoke the way my family did. More painfully, how could we not have heard it?
After that day my friend lost her temper with me I began listening. Not just listening but studying, really studying, the rhythms and nuances of the way other people around me talked. I sat in waiting rooms in dentist offices. I loitered outside the door of a faculty meeting. I sat outside my professors’ offices pretending to read. I chewed my food slowly at a friend’s wedding dinner so that the chatting guests on either side wouldn’t expect much response. Over time, I began to notice the tiny open spaces between words from different people like seeing the blackened silhouettes of birds spaced out on a wire for the first time. They were measured and they all had their place. The only spaces where people talked like my family were on police reality shows, in movies about angry people, in war zones, and on Jerry Springer.
Before my next visit with my family, I determined that no matter how hard, no matter how tempting it would be to jump in and out of the conversation, I would listen. I would hear. I would analyze. I would ponder not only the words but the rhythm of the words as they ricocheted around the room. I would wait for the opening to express my responses in a calm and correct voice. My words would be measured, polite, and normal. I would be the way other people spoke in conversations.
My plan was successful for exactly four minutes.
“What’s wrong with you? You haven’t said a word. Are you sick? I think she’s sick. Take a look at her. She looks sick, doesn’t she? Are you sick?”
“What is she talking about? Did you say you were sick?”
“What’s the problem? I told you she shouldn’t be so far off at school. The junior college here in town is just fine. I don’t know why she has to go off to that other school nearly three hours away. Hey, this sandwich needs some more mayonnaise. Get me the mayonnaise, would you?”
I said nothing for several seconds, and then I spoke atop my mother’s demand for pickles. “Have you ever had a conversation with anyone? A real conversation. One in which you listen to what someone else is saying to you and think about what you want to say and then say it?”
“Why, that’s crazy talk,” she said, and jabbed a fork into the pickle jar. My dad jumped in with his declaration that he was going to hose down the shed and then go check the spark plugs on something. I don’t remember what because I stopped listening and walked out the door.
Jumping over other people’s speech is still a default position for me if I’m tired and not focusing, or if I’ve had one too many beers. There are probably other cultures in other parts of the world that repeat these interrupting speech patterns just the way my family does. Maybe it’s comforting to them the way it is to my family, like passing several hot potatoes back and forth. If I came across one of these families on some island somewhere I guess I could dispense with my crazy talk for a bit and fit in just fine. But for now I straddle two linguistic worlds. I leap atop sentences with my family and let them bite into the ends of mine, doing this dance of oral illogic because this is my family’s comfort zone. Sometimes we even understand one another. When I am out with other people I tune it down, slow the pace, and focus on listening and thinking. Like speaking two languages, crazy talk.
CATHY ADAMS’ second novel, A Body’s Just as Dead, is forthcoming from SFK Press in 2018. Her debut novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. She is a Pushcart Prize nominated short story writer with stories published in Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Barely South, A River and Sound Review, Upstreet, Southern Pacific Review, and 41 other journals from around the world. She earned her M.F.A. at Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington. She lives and writes in Liaoning, China, with her husband, photographer, Julian Jackson.