Toti O’Brien



Tinnitus exploded at once in my mid-forties. If it had crept in slowly, gradually, I hadn’t noticed it. Suddenly, it popped up as I lay on my bed—one early afternoon—seeking for a moment of rest, perhaps meditation.

My boyfriend and I had just split and I needed to find reasons, mourn a bit, recenter, regroup. Alas, the calm on which I was counting unexpectedly eluded me. I felt helpless, betrayed, and trapped.

The day after I tried to relax within my parked car. I did it on occasion. I lowered the back of the driver seat, closed all windows to keep noises away, looked up at the sky through the clear roof. The buzz in my ear came—again—as a surprise, an intruder. I had forgotten about my discovery of the day before. Now I was briskly reminded of this unwanted presence—this invasive companion I had never invited aboard.

I had arrived early at a new client’s house, responding to a last-minute call. Only when on my way I had discovered that the place was in my ex-boyfriend’s neighborhood, a few blocks from his home. Longing tightened my throat. I cried silently.

So to speak—the background din in my timpani mocked me, irritated me, disturbed me. Then I wondered if I’d be able to sustain it…  coming to work for this particular client, filling my eyes over and over with the memories evoked by this small cluster of streets—the sweet-and-sour scent of dead love.

The brief pause in the car, I thought, was a perfect trial. Just lie there, alone and prey to my emotions, see if I could let them wash over me and get up still functional, more or less intact. Yes, I could.

Could I bear tinnitus as well? Get used to its burdensome presence, revealed only in the very moment when I—indeed—sought silence in order to extrude all disturbances? Yes, of course. I could bear it.



This is how you deal with tinnitus if you wish for this incurable status not to become a torture. It’s all in your brain, correct? Therefore your brain can manage it.

If it pierces your left ear—the one that you have pressed hard against the pillow, as you tried to sleep—concentrate on the sound your right ear contains. It is fainter at the moment, but you’ll seek to circumscribe and highlight it, tuning to its rhythm and pitch until it becomes more noticeable than the rattle on your left side, which has driven you mad.

As you work making your right-ear-noise more distinct, you realize that the intensity of your left-ear-din after all is relative. It slips into the background by a mere shift of focus, a mild exercise of filtering skills. It seems that, all accounted, you are in charge of the volume knob. Only, you can’t turn it off entirely. Unless…

Step two. Crickets. They are such a resource! Tiny saviors. You know, do you, that the drone you perceive is the product of crickets singing outside, in the sweet-smelling summer night? The actual season doesn’t matter, of course. Summer—a Southern one, perhaps Mediterranean—has become a permanent feature of yours.

Why not? Welcome, little chorusing insects summoning scents of blooms, ripe fruit, capers, sea salt. Crickets never bother a soul. On the contrary, they create a pleasant ambiance, apt to favor sleep, dreams and reveries as well as discretely accompany the train of your thoughts. In fact, crickets can be perfectly inspiring—a descant, intense yet quite graceful, letting the main melody shine.

What about silence? It is a relative concept. Figure it like a bubble suspended in mid-air, delicately fringed by the insects’ subdued, modest tune. Figure it like a mirror—shiny, untarnished—held together by a small, unobtrusive flowery frame.

Welcome, inexhaustible crickets of the mind.



When she has left the habit of falling in love finally behind her, the only thing that remains is a kind of ersatz. A pale copy—a purged, reduced version, as if edited for a young or sensitive audience. The phenomenon merely consists in a resonance she experiences after meeting someone who potentially…

Someone, she means, who in the past might have…


Not anymore.

When she meets a person who potentially—in a time now revolved—could have ignited a passion, she experiences afterwards a kind of tinnitus. Meaning the fastidious vibration of neural receptors that keep active in response to a discontinued stimulus. A weird lingering she can usually dispose of within twenty-four hours. Still too many for a meaningless echo, an empty aftereffect.

Not a memory, no. More like the puzzling sting of a phantom limb, when you feel pain or pressure against skin and flesh you don’t own anymore.

Are you there?

Are you still?

Why aren’t you…

She feels suddenly maimed. Simultaneously crowded. Yes. What could be more burdensome and intrusive than the vain tug of absent something? Like a question incessantly whispered in her ear while she is trying to sleep, an inanity someone reiterates with no purpose besides stealing attention, delaying the blessed moment of rest.

Have we arrived yet?

Will Daddy return?

In fact, the examples above are sidetracking. The disturbance isn’t expressed in words. It is only an itch—not even that sharp, localized. Only soreness, an ache.

Is it longing? Wait a minute. Is it merely desire? Perhaps in disguise, as none of the features desire usually harbors is there. No tension. No fantasies. No emergency. Nothing that (borrowing from a visual domain) we could call protruding, jutting out, extrovert.

On the contrary she feels concave, excavated as if someone had punched her with a stamp, leaving an indelible print. The idiom, “he, she, it left an impression” literally applies to her status. She understands now what the sentence means.

Besides, the mark isn’t indelible. It pales out—she assures—within twenty-four hours, give or take. But until it does, a chunk of her is gone missing, scooped out, and the hole… The hole aches because of its emptiness.

Where’s the indent? She can’t say. Perhaps towards the center of her body, whatever that is—heart, lungs, guts. Perhaps higher, either in her neck or her skull, as her throat and brains in turns feel scorched and flayed—with all nervous ends exposed, burned out by the touch of oxygen as if by muriatic acid. Charred, disfigured. That bad? Sometimes. Naked cells lining a newly formed crater, sending irritated signals to the main switchboard. Signaling what? Nasty, dangerous drafts. Lethal exposure.

The discomfort is stark yet she doesn’t panic, knowing symptoms are temporary and no action needs to be taken. The incision heals itself—matter inherently tending to resume its shape.



Forget all of the above. Crumple those journal pages you have littered with useless scribbles. Just let go of them. Start over.

Watch these kids tossing stones in the water by the lakeshore, at sunset—fishing boats already coming back for the night. The sky hasn’t darkened yet but the light has softened. Join these kids, would you?

Look at that expert throw! How long have you worked at refining it? Horizontal. No slant, no inclination—otherwise everything is ruined. Soft yet decisive. How long have you worked on it? Have you achieved what you wished for?

Watch these children—their arms arching wide, then suddenly still before the sharp move, the instant jerk of deliverance. Eyes transfixed, expectantly glued to the pebble jumping once, twice, thrice… Don’t be fooled by the stone. Finding the right one isn’t crucial, at all. Everything is in the gesture, the throw.

Now look at the concentric circles, how they reverberate. Aren’t they just magical? How the skin of the lake shivers with pleasure. No complaint rises from the depth when the surface is tickled this way.




Return to Spring Issue Volume 11.2


Toti O'Brien


Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has recently appeared in Alkhemia Poetica, Altadena Literary Review, Intrinsick, and Lotus-eater.