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Listening

Story by Michael Don (Read author interview) February 4, 2021

Art by Enrique Fernandez

My neighbor and her ex reunited at all hours. At first I listened. I kept my couch against the shared wall, the one they reunited against. It amazed me how they transitioned so quickly from fighting to playing and then from playing to pinning each other against the wall. Sometimes it would get quiet and it seemed they had finished in a modest way, but it was always just the quiet before the storm. I liked the commotion of the storm, but I disliked it too because it signaled the end for a while, and then the TV would come on which brought me neither comfort nor insight.

I lived alone in an old schoolhouse converted into lofts. The units were supposed to be cool and trendy, but the walls were poorly insulated, so cold air and the neighbors’ noises were part of the deal. I didn’t know my neighbor. I only gathered her situation through fragments. She wasn’t around much and when I heard her door swing open I’d run to my door and press my eye against the peep hole, but I had yet to catch more than a back of head, a slice of face.

I too had had a person. I had had a person in the recent past. I had had a person who was the first man with whom I ever tried. He claimed I’d never know how to satiate him and that I was just going through a phase. He said there were things I didn’t understand. He said all of this in a kind way.

“But I am a man,” I said. “I’ll get better.”

“It’s more than that,” he said, and then changed the subject to what I paid for rent.

I wasn’t very good with women either. I was uneven. I’d start slowly and then speed up quickly, skipping steps. I’d get so worked up and I’d be going so fast and then I’d come to an abrupt stop to keep from finishing. An intermission would be a generous description. But once I’d start up again, I’d have no choice but to cross the finish line and lie in my own sweat, apologizing. Then she would say, “You’re fine,” or “That was nice,” or “We’ll figure it out,” or “It’s really not about duration.”

I felt sad for everyone that she had to say those things.

My neighbor and her ex were at it again. This time the fight seemed serious.

“Why don’t you listen to me? Why don’t you ask me how I feel and just listen to me instead of telling me I’m angry. This is why we’re not together.”

“You are angry.”

“You’re angry.”

“I’m not angry.”

“You are angry.”

Then they reunited and I listened, but soon after they started the sounds trailed off and just like that, I was alone. It was frustrating to say the least. I threw my hands up and said “what can you do?” because what could I do—knock on the door and ask them to please return to our shared wall?

I decided to make myself useful, so I loaded up my laundry basket and carried it down to the laundry room. When I got down there the light was off and the door was closed. I heard faint voices. Ear to door, I determined it was indeed my neighbor and her ex. I listened for a while. But I didn’t have any clean socks, so I opened the door and flipped on the light. She snorted and he grinned. They both apologized as they pulled up their pants. Neither she nor he looked how their voices sounded. He was a little heavy with a receding hairline though he was holding onto his twenties. She had a freckled nose and a pointy chin.

“You’re fine,” I said, and then under my breath added, “Don’t leave on my behalf,” and I meant it.

One Sunday the neighbor and her ex were watching football and the ex was laughing about the length of some Bears’ player’s arms. I guess they were comically long or comically short. I was right there on the other side of the wall, drinking coffee that tasted mint-flavored because earlier I’d been going to town on a box of Thin Mints I had discovered in the back of my freezer.

My ex sent me a text saying he was stopping by. I told him I was busy, but he showed up anyway. We reunited on the couch against the neighbor’s wall. I found a rhythm I’d never found before. He told me I’d gotten better and that maybe we should get back together for a couple of weeks. A trial run.

I figured I didn’t understand precision well enough to be with women. I didn’t have a good eye for detail, I wasn’t very patient, I had clumsy fingers. Coloring within the lines caused me great stress as a child.

We lay on the couch sweating.

“Where’d you learn that?” he said.

“It’s just about finding a rhythm,” I said.

“No,” he said. “It’s more than that. You grew ears.”

“You’re such a know-it-all,” I said, sitting up and wagging a finger.

My ex laughed and then I laughed and then a familiar cackle joined us. We started reuniting again—the cackle morphing into guttural sounds but coming at us until we could no longer hear ourselves.

About the Author

Michael Don is the author of the story collection Partners and Strangers (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2019) and he co-edits Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature.

About the Artist

Find more photography by Enrique Fernandez at Unsplash.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy
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The SmokeLong Quarterly Comedy Prize 2021!

This competition is no longer accepting entries. Watch for the long list coming soon! The four winners of the competition will be featured in Issue 74 of SmokeLong Quarterly coming out near the end of December.