Learning to Listen on FaceTime

I see him in the evening within the four corners of my phone’s warm screen. It is close to midnight his time, only six o’clock mine. The light from a desk lamp illuminates his skin. His closet doors are always open. His fan, always oscillating. Sometimes he will talk into the fan, making his voice sound robotic. We share a reminiscent laugh together, remembering times when we talked into fans as children, listening to the altered voice in amazement.

In the right corner of the screen, I appear. My hair is down, parted in the center. My face occupies almost the whole screen. I wonder if he can see my pores, my freckles. Behind my face, he can see a painting of Frida Kahlo. It sits on a tall dresser in my room, propped against the wall. Sometimes he incorporates Frida into our conversation like she is alive and with us. I go along with his jokes. We ask Frida how her day was. Ask about the monkey on her shoulder.

Our conversations last for hours into his morning, my night. He is never the one to hang up. These hours with him have taught me new ways to listen. I have become more aware of his words, how they travel from his tiny apartment in Rome to my bedroom in Michigan. I have become aware of how we listen. How we collect and bundle words, draw them close.

In all varieties of conversation, we listen to respond. It is the primary way we communicate. Our responses are powerful. They can dictate the interaction’s mood and ease depending on the tone we use. Tone is crucial on FaceTime. When he calls on, my phone is typically propped horizontally against a stack of books on my nightstand. I lay on my bed with my chin cupped in my hands. This prevents me from using hand gestures to compliment my words, providing a visual of my thoughts and stories as they travel to his screen. He is limited as well. There is only so much range of motion a person can use when sitting at a desk. We gather what we can. I notice his posture, how his shoulders seldom hunch over. How he is always sitting back, relaxed, casual.

“How was your day?”

“It was good,” I say, my voice rising as if I am unsure of my day’s quality. As if good is not accurate. As if by good I mean that I felt sad for no reason.

“Tell me, tell me, tell me,” he says. “What happened?” His face gets a little closer to the camera. His eyes squint. I can tell that he heard me. His urgent inquiry response tells me that he is sincere. He cares about my day’s quality. So, I tell him.

On average, our FaceTime sessions last about four hours. During the fourth hour I can hear the sleepiness in his voice. His tone softens. His words slur a little like he has had too much to drink. I suggest we end the call but he assures me that he is fine. That he can go to work the next morning with only three hours of sleep. Ten minutes pass and he has moved from his desk to his bed. His tone is depleted. Hearing him struggle for words and energy, I say goodnight and end the call.

During one of our first conversations together, I was sitting outside on the back porch. The sun turned my skin a golden color.

“Now I have olive skin like you,” I said jokingly. He laughed and probably responded in sarcastic agreeance. Then he told me about his parents. How they met and the company they both work for. He told me about a time when his father left. And the time when he returned. As I listened to him, I recall a sense of awareness that ran through me. I remember deliberately thinking, “I want to remember this.” With a tuned ear, I continued listening to him. I soaked in his words like bath water until my fingertips and toes began to shrivel. I pictured his family and their home in Sicily. I pictured all of this with the ambition to remember, with the ambition for it to stick.

A natural (and inevitable) product of listening to remember is listening to understand. Whether I was aware of it or not, I began to situate his childhood stories and antidotes within my own consciousness. I related his experiences to my own. I found areas of similarity and areas of difference. Listening to understand eliminated the screen between us. For a moment we were in the same room. For a moment our interactions did not lag or freeze. For a moment our connection was more than a wifi signal. When I listen to understand him, I realize the power of communication. How it can bind people or break them.

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