Trying to Listen

(This morning at my gym, I sat in the lounge area next to a woman who was old but probably not as old as me. I smiled at her, she smiled weakly at me. She began to play music on her cellphone. I was immediately annoyed that she wasn’t using earphones, but I didn’t say anything. Very soon, however, a younger woman did say something, causing the older woman to stop the music and storm off, saying, “OK, you win!” So I challenged myself to write a story that would turn my irritation into empathy.)

She had to listen to it surrounded by people. But not people who knew her, knew him. She couldn’t, couldn’t listen alone, so alone, at home. In the house that now always felt empty and threatening. In the garden that felt so bare even with so much in leaf and bloom. She couldn’t listen with her children, whose grief sliced her already bleeding heart to shreds. She couldn’t listen with friends and neighbors, whose pity made her want to scream and throw things. Heavy things. With sharp edges. At them.

She tried the library. The problem was that she couldn’t listen with earphones that shut out all other sound and left her even more alone than alone. But other people looked at her with disapproving judgement and the librarian came over to tell her to use earphones or stop playing or leave.

She left.

She tried the coffee shop but still those looks. When the second person asked her to turn down the volume or use earphones or leave, she left.

She tried her gym. Just a few others sat in the lounge area in the chairs in front of the fake fire or at the small tables along the back wall. But it was a busy place. Right inside the door, before the registration desk, in front of the café area, across from the Kid Zone. Busy, noisy, people talking, walking, answering the phone, paging trainers, asking questions. Surely here. She sat in one of the chairs and started to play his last composition. His unfinished what? – not symphony. A weird piece with Eastern overtones and a heavy almost mournful…

“I’m sorry, but could you please turn that down? Or use earphones. It’s just too loud for me to concentrate,” asked – but really demanded – the assertive young woman now standing next to her. Where had she come from?

She smiled a weak smile at the seemingly polite young woman and turned the music off. Closed her eyes and just sat until she felt movement next to her. An older woman sat down in the nearby chair, gave her a soft smile.

“Maybe,” she thought, “maybe she is more tolerant – or more hard of hearing.”

She turned the sound down a bit and restarted the music. The young woman came quickly from the table behind her.

“I’m sorry, but that is still too loud. You sh…”

“OK, you win,” she said angrily to the empty too-full world, as she turned off the music and fled before she sobbed her too loud sobs.

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