Some People Just Aren't Cut Out for Active Listening
"To share our stories is not only a worthwhile endeavor for the storyteller, but for those who hear our stories and feel less alone because of it."
- Joyce Maynard
"So here we are" I announce to the silent room, still waiting with saint-like patience for Ranma to begin his tale. My boots lay forgotten at the foot of the sofa and my feet are curled beneath me as I sit with baited breath at the idea of knowing. I expect intrigue. Adventure. Sex and Rock 'n Roll for God's sake. What I get is this:
"Ever been to China?" His voice is light, even as his expression in stoic. Wondering at the unusual introduction and not able to see how it could relate to anything important, I shake my head. No, I haven't. I add, "I've never been outside the country." Just in case head-shakes were too vague a form of communication. I'm such an idiot. Well, this bit of useless personal information seems to have Ranma thinking, and once again I'm left to stew in frustrated curiosity. This was torture. If Ranma were a true girl, he'd have spit half the story up in a vomit-like spew of information by now. That's what most of my experiences had been so far anyways, limited as they were. I wasn't one for patient and kind third-party listening. And usually I took the wrong side.
He begins again, "You know my Dad." Again, I nod and add a meek "yes" to fill the thickened silence. Of course I knew Mr. Soatome. I knew he was crazy… I knew he was weird. I knew he was my boss and headed my entire department. All of these things were known to me. What I didn't know was why it mattered. As you can tell, I'm not a very patient person.
"So when I was younger, I spent a lot of time travelling with Pops. He was training me, you know." I nodded, even though I'd had no idea. I didn't really even know what qualified as "training" him. Ranma seemed like he had the potential to be very dangerous, yes, but beyond that I couldn't even begin to guess what he could do. I thought back to our skirmish and the moment s(he) dodged my harrowing hat-rack blow. There was a quick and effortless grace about his movements that suggested extreme levels of martial arts experience. He was probably very, very good.
"We left my Mom when I was a few years old I guess, and I don't remember going back until I was about sixteen. We had just been to China…" Ah. Now I see. He paused, making sure I was still mostly on the same page. I didn't say anything this time, just held his gaze and waited. I got the feeling he didn't tell this story much. He sighed, "We went a lot of places, made a lot of mistakes… that's the best way to describe it I guess. We had a lot of enemies, and not very many friends. So it's easy to imagine that we didn't have a lot of offers of assistance. You know, food, shelter. The bare essentials were always pretty absent. And of course Pops never thought that far ahead. That's how he explained it anyways. I think he was just cheap.
Anyways, we would spend days in one place and then travel to the next spot. Probably a lot of the things he made me do would fall under the general label of 'inappropriate treatment of a minor'." At this his face warmed and a blush crested his cheeks. "That didn't come out the way it was supposed to." I snort at his embarrassment and gesture my hand in the air. Go on.
He takes his cue, a hint of blush still visible. I absolutely did not find it attractive. There was no hint of sympathy in the way I reacted to his story of lonely child mistreatment. I was stoic. Like a rock, but much better. Watching my minute reactions to the descriptions of his misadventures, Ranma continues for a long time about his and Mr Soatome's experiences that led them to a place called the Jyusenkyo, located in some obscure part of rural China. I couldn't tell you where it is, how to locate it, or even how to find it on Google Earth. Of course, Geography was never my strong suit in high school. Well, understatement. I didn't have any strengths in high school. But that's another story altogether.
He tries to explain this place of geographical mystery, insofar as much as it had "a bunch of pools of water with really long bamboo poles sticking out of them". On one side was a mountain leading up to a steep cliff, on the other a sign of mediocre size that was written in barely legible Chinese. That is, if you knew how to read Chinese. Otherwise it was completely illegible. I took it upon myself to ask Ranma, "Did either of you know how to read it?" to which Ranma lowered his head, looked at his feet, and then back up at me.
I nodded, not really very surprised. I added, "Ok", and waited for him to get on with it.
"Well, turns out it was kind of an important sign." At this point, his gaze shifted away from me and looked toward my photo-clad wall. I can see from his profile that he's flushing again. His eyebrows are raised in inquisition and he looks on the verge of asking me a question. I wait, pretending to be patient. Right.
And then the fucking phone rings.
Neither of us moves immediately, not sure which phone it is. An explosive sigh escapes from my chest. "It's mine", I explain and reach for my belt where my phone is. After checking the caller ID I sigh again and click the accept button: "Yeah, what is it?"
"Hello to you too Sunshine". I can feel my blood-pressure rise at the sound of my sister's voice. My next sigh is directly into the phone, and very audible. "Sorry Nabiki. I'm just sort of in the middle of something. What's the occasion?" Nabiki is one of those family members that calls only on the rare chance that there's something you are able (and willing) to do for her. Last time was a blind date with a "fabulous" guy that she needed someone to take her place in on short notice. Suffice to say he was not fabulous, and the term "blind-date" was actually a set-up for "babysit-one-of-my-coworkers-while-I-bang-the-boss-in-his-office". That was about two months ago, and I hadn't heard from her since. Granted, I almost threw her blackberry out a window and threatened to disown her children's children if she ever put me in another situation like that again. But really, she knows I would never. I like kids. Sort of. She also pointed out that it wasn't legal.
"Can't I just call my baby sister for a little female-friendly chat every now and again?" Nabiki continues to wheedle. She had something up her sleeve. I can feel the enamel of my teeth grind against itself as I clench my jaw. "No. And no to whatever it is you want me to do. Find someone else to actively assist you in adultery." Looking across at Ranma, I can see he isn't even trying to feign disinterest. I stick my tongue out, ever the adult. He grins back. I turn my back on him and look up at the ceiling.
" And that's what I get for trying to be a good sister to you Akane. I mean really, I didn't have to call to check up on you. I could be getting my nails redone right now. Or buying myself a drink. Or pulling my feminine curlies out with needle-nose pliers. The list goes on." I roll my eyes, even realizing that my sister couldn't see my exasperation. I bite back, "Get real Nabiki, we both know there's nothing left for you to pluck." She laughed. Ranma looked confused. Serves him right for eavesdropping. I cover the mouth piece on the phone and suggest he go to the bathroom or beat his forehead against the wall.
"No thanks. I'm ok here." He responds complacently, and I give up trying to give him better life options and tune back into Nabiki's one-sided conversation. "So really though" I interrupt, "what is it you want?"
"I'm just checking up on you Sis. I know you've been ass-deep in that case with What's-his-face for a few months now… You know, that crazy guy… What was his name again?" She asks me innocently, and I growl "Nabiki…"
"And you know, I was just wondering how the situation was looking from your perspective. Speaking as a strictly neutral yet concerned third-party." She finishes easily and swiftly, before I get the chance to tell her to mind her own damn business. "You know I can't talk to anyone outside of the department about my on-going cases. And the last person I would ever share confidential information with is you anyways." I feel rather than hear an electric response to my words. Brain fart. I should have just hung up once I realized she was after my case information. Better yet, I should have just left her to my voicemail. I basically just admitted that the case hadn't been resolved yet. Contrary to the media reports that were released just this morning.
"So who's there with you?" She asks in response, ignoring my earlier statement. Why was she so good at this? Right. Because it was her job. I stifle another sigh, "No one's here with me Nabiki. Just me and my bitter perspective on life." I shift a quick look at Ranma who's once again checking out the family photos. I think maybe he hadn't heard me, until I see the slight downturn of his mouth and the subtle way in which he cranes his neck in the direction of me and my phone call. Perfect. "Right", I say enthusiastically, "well, gotta go. Me and my empty apartment are going to go negotiate a sandwhich and a nap. You have a great day though." I press the end button on the phone, barely hearing the beginnings of an objection from the other side of the line before I'm able to hang up. "Great. That was fun. Ranma?" I ask, still not looking in his direction. He turns nonchalantly toward me once more, his ears perking up. "Yes?" he asks genially.
"Can you hurry up and finish this story? I'm not a very patient person."
"Sure thing. Where was I?" He ambles back over to his chair, kind of plopping back into the cushions. Obviously someone has relaxed. Listening to me try and navigate a conversation with my middle sister usually puts people at ease. It assures them of my incompetence. "You were telling me about Jusenkyo". He nods and resumes his story, starting with how he fell into a spring of cursed water and ending with… well, how he fell into a spring of cursed water. And then there's silence.
"So that's it then?" I ask unblinkingly, trying very hard not to throw something.
"Yup. That's it. And now here I am. Well, after years of informal and formal training and a few other misfortunes or two." He nods once, as if to emphasize the finality of his statement.
I refuse to be the one to break the silence, even though I realize this couldn't have been an easy conversation for him to share with me. I feel a little warmed. I'm not usually the one people come to with personal things. And don't get me wrong, it's not because I'm a bad listener. Not really. I think it just takes more than that. Like, if someone's going to voluntarily bleed their deepest fears and darkest thoughts in front of you, they expect a little collateral for it. They want you to be as vulnerable and invested in them as they are with you. No one wants to be the only fault-ridden human being in a relationship. No one really wants to feel exposed; they just need to every now and again. And that's something I don't know if I'll ever be able to do.
But that's a story for another time.
I almost start to feel some compassion for him then. I mean, it's literally just about to seep into my dopey, oversensitive heart like a sponge soaking up dirty counter water at a fast food restaraunt. And then he damns himself… He speaks.
"So… how do you actually go about aiding in adultery? It sounds kind of kinky."
The moment is lost, my thoughts of butterflies and feelings of rainbows are squashed beneath his big, clumsy metaphorical foot. I look at him steadily for a moment before replying, "You have no idea."
It was a bluff, of course. But why should he have to know that?