The machine could answer as well as she. Always chipper and polite, it always had time, and callers didn’t care one way or the other; in fact, they were quite expansive and put on a little show with chuckles and asides, voices mounting and sinking with feeling. She imagined she was giving them an opportunity record evidence of their most admirable qualities for all posterity.
When she decided to abstain from small talk, it began as a little game. If the conversation turns toward gossip or weather or television, she told herself, I will simply nod and smile; I will refrain from blurting “fine” if someone asks that same old question. She also eschewed space-fillers: no “um,” no “actually,” no “do you know what I mean,” none of the empty things she used to mouth while thinking what to say next. At work, this experiment proved most difficult. After a week she noticed that co-workers had stopped smiling and even stopped talking when she approached. She didn’t miss them as much as she supposed; she got a promotion.
As it often happens, what begins as diversion soon becomes absorption. She swore off lies (even the polite ones) and became her own editor, cutting every unnecessary sound before it left her tongue. She cut politics and religion from her vocabulary since those topics usually left her feeling like a fish on the shore, lips flapping for nothing. Instead of chatting with people who ask questions and then just nod, nod, repeating “uh-huh” and “oh how nice,” just waiting for their turn to talk, she decided to save her breath and let them have the floor.
The waitress approaches: “How was your meal?”
She says, “Don’t worry, I’ll leave you a decent tip.”
To the man standing on the corner who wonders if she cares at all about whales getting slaughtered, she doesn’t say a word, but she signs his petition.
When the neighbor’s cat dies, all she can offer is a hug.
She lines her eyes with dark pencil to draw attention from her lips. They say that when you lose one sense, the others compensate. Her actions take up the slack. With strangers, it’s easy. She just smiles and points to her lips and shakes her head, fluttering her eyelids; they assume she’s mute or has laryngitis; they fill the space with friendly gestures and exaggerated cheer. Friends say she sounds like a fortune cookie, like a proverb in clipped English. Many stop leaving messages on the machine. Some find her silence charming, and some don’t even notice.
Her husband doesn’t mind at all. In fact, he’s secretly relieved. Not that he ever minded before, but it’s as if suddenly, after a lifetime steeped in the constant susurrus of a busy city, someone has flipped a giant switch and he can see for miles without distraction. He experiences real peace for the first time.
He lies in bed watching her get ready for work in the morning. She brushes her hair and smoothes lotion over her skin, her gaze fixed on her eyes in the mirror, and her blunt profile slides into his consciousness. He never noticed her hands before, how delicate they are, how precise, how they move through the air like tango dancers.
One day, at a lunch meeting with a client, with a spoonful of onion soup halfway to her mouth, she discovers she has nothing to say. She clears her throat—no use. She flutters her eyelids and shakes her head. She wipes her mouth with her napkin, places the spoon at the edge of her plate, and walks away.
At her regular station, she doesn’t get off. Instead she just sits on the train beside old ladies who grip the pocketbooks on their laps, mothers with faces blank as fog, young men nodding rhythmically to music she can only imagine. Together they tunnel through darkness under the city.
Eventually, the train surfaces for a breath and the buildings make room for trees, and the trees wave and dance in the breeze, and the world hums and sparkles with life.
When he gets home that night, he finds her in bed. He lies down beside her.
She turns to him, covers him with her thigh, hears his heart whisper in her ear.
She touches his chest, his throat; he grabs her wrists and breathes her hair.
They utter the same sound as they slide into consciousness.
Question: In my second draft of this story, I changed the main character to a male, then changed “him” back to “her” again. I wonder how that would have affected your reading of this story? Do you think I should change her back? (I feel a little thrill of power when I write things like that so glibly—just imagine if it were so easy in real life!)