Short Story // Vowels
Monica’s subterranean changes surface in evidence I glean from how she unconsciously leaves crusty silverware unattended on the counter after meals, and regularly doesn’t turn off kitchen lights, hallway and stairway lights, or the bathroom light and fan. Strangely, she’s also content to sit in near darkness in the living room, choosing to hold a book an inch from her face, rather than switch on the lamp beside her on our end table. She knows these behaviors get under my skin; however, I’m witnessing an escalation of these peculiar displays. I have considered her acts could represent her usual pattern of passive aggression; but given our twenty-seven years of marriage, I believe she’s presenting mundane signs of irrepressible psychological disruptions. This is serious.
Most recently, whenever she speaks, vowels impart an emotional world beneath her surface. Vowels pronounced very slightly too long, or minutely clipped, or otherwise barely overemphasized, reveal very subtle differences through her voicings—subtle, but disturbing nonetheless. I detect shades of resentment and blame, micro spikes of maliciousness within her vowels. She used to clearly state what she meant, and her voice plainly said so. Now she might say something as simple as “Headed out to the store,” but her words impart a second message under the surface, like “and don’t expect me back too soon, maybe never.” At first I thought I was the problem—making up, misinterpreting, hearing things that weren’t there. Not so. Her pronunciation of vowels comes across almost imperceptibly imbued with accusation and harsh emotional colourings, cumulatively off, bending most everything she says, bringing comments, explanations, compliments, speculations, everyday banter into question. It’s all too true this subterranean echo I hear. No statement remains unaltered by her vowels. Oddly, I notice very few changes in her consonants; she doesn’t emphasize or deemphasize them in any way I can detect. It’s the vowels carrying her subterranean sentiments to the surface. And I don’t think she even notices what’s happening. It appears entirely unconscious on her part.
So when we talk now, I respond very carefully, on tenterhooks. I have to answer to both levels of her statements, but act like I am only addressing her surface ideas and emotions, which requires me to regard my vowels in ways she must unconsciously absorb, beyond detection. I’ve learned to alter my voice to speak to both communications without tipping my method too far in either direction. It drives me a little crazy, you might imagine.
So far, our doublespeak and our otherspeak and our surface layer of normalspeak seem functional enough, but I’d rather not have to attend to so much subtext all the time. I’m doing all the heavy lifting, since she appears unaware of her emotionally laden vowels, and she doesn’t consciously perceive my scrupulously layered speech, though I’m positive her subterranean mind receives my messages. I’m exhausted by it all.
When not with Monica, I have to be careful to disconnect my second voice, speak normally and not read too deeply into what others say—though now I sometimes detect a second voice in their vowels, too. Not my business, I tell myself. Too much information, I tell myself. I don’t want to know, I tell myself. I do my best to cut off my second-voice detector. Otherwise, I grow overwhelmed. What am I to do with an exchange with the checker at our local supermarket when we’re making small banter but I hear her other voice rising up in her vowels, telling me she hates her job, that her own smile pains her, and if she doesn’t get a break soon she’s going to gouge out the eyes of the next shopper who talks to her. I have got to turn that shit off.
I used to take vowels for granted, even enjoy them, short ones and long ones, for their musical qualities. I used to love the human voice’s lilt of vowels as they’d ride along between consonants. Now they’re a heavy burden, I prefer Monica and I sit in silence, she knitting in her rocking chair, I peering over the top edge of my book of Eastern European stories set in an anti-Semitic village.
Inevitably, she gathers needles and yarn, rises from her rocker, and grins in my direction to say, “Goodnight, hon,” but something awful, disquieting vowels fattening her voice, send disturbing chills up my spine.
Steven J Weinberg lives with his family on an island near Seattle, where he writes short stories, poetry, and personal essays. He is a graduate of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and has earned a living teaching writing and literature. S J Weinberg’s collaborations as a member of jazz trio NoboDaddy in the Lower Worlds, featuring his poetry and wordplay, can be heard on Soundcloud via https://www.thomasager.com/steven-weinberg/
Of the short story featured here, Steven says:
'Vowels, is my attempt at unravelling an aspect of verbal communication as sifted through a hyper-attentive narrator. The story reflects how isolation can have psychological repercussions in a relationship.'