A Story For the New Year

This picture never gets old.

A holiday hangover for good little girls and boys.

It was a while back now, I was sitting in my office at work, staring at a pair of headphones and trying not to cry. A coworker happened to walk in, looking for a stapler, and stopped when he saw me, asking if I was alright. I thought I had been doing a fairly good job of holding things together, but apparently not.

I should probably explain a little further. The reason this particular set of earbuds -- a very nice set of Klipsch that I reallly like, by the way -- evoked this response in me was not because I'm just generally emotional over personal audio techology. The reason was because of an extra that came in the box. This particular set of earbuds came with a splitter, so that you could hook two sets of headphones into one jack, and two people could listen at the same time. It was a nice thing to include.

It's been almost five years since I lost someone very dear to me. Her name was Angie; I've written about her before. It may or may not feel like that long; it's tough for me to really tell anymore. I suppose it must feel like a long time, because I honestly don't think about her all that often these days. The version of her that lives in my head is mostly quiet, only popping in occasionally to surprise with how fresh the loss still feels when I remember to feel it.

She had this very, very irritating habit that drove me crazy. I listen to music, a lot. (Not surprising, I know.) And I do a lot of my listening on headphones. I have big can-style studio headphones I use with my turntable, but for the computer or iPod or that sort of thing, I just use earbuds. Any and every time she saw me with headphones in, she would walk over, grab one out, and stick it in her ear to hear what I was listening to.

Over and over, I would offer to go and buy one of those fucking splitters, so she would stop grabbing one of my headphones, leaving me with only half of whatever I was listening to. Sure, on a lot of music it doesn't matter, but David Bowie's "Space Oddity" just doesn't work through one headphone. (Seriously, try it; it's awful) I would bitch and moan every time she did it, and she would always just smile and ignore my complaints. As annoying as the headphone thing was, nothing in the world was as irritating as her ability to avoid a fight with me, no matter how hard I started to fight one.

One night, during the years we were apart, only occasionally spending a weekend together when she came into town, I was working on my computer in bed, thinking she was asleep. I had my headphones in; the song at the exact moment was "Turn It On", by the Flaming Lips. She rolled over, looked at me with slightly owlish, didn't-bother-to-wash-off-the-mascara-before-laying-down eyes, and grabbed the bud out of my left ear.She popped it into her own, nodded slightly in a satisfied way, and settled down into her pillow to listen.

For some reason I can't remember at this late date, I was in a rotten mood that night, and snapped at her, asking why in the hell she always had to fuck with my headphones.

"Because," she said, "I like hearing what you're listening to."

"But I can't hear what I'm listening to like this! If it's that important to you," I began, for at least the dozenth time, "I'll get one of those splitter things. Fuck, I'll even buy us cute little matching couple's headphones, if you'll just fucking leave mine alone." (This was not, I might add, one of my prouder moments in life.)

"I don't want my own set. I want yours."

"What do you mean you want mine?" I asked. This was new; she usually just played Cheshire on me, smiling sweetly and refusing to argue.

"Because, I want to hear your headphones with you."

"Ahh! But then I can't hear the whole song! That's the problem!"

She smiled at me. "Well, that way you can't ever get rid of me. You need me around to tell you what the rest of your music sounds like."

I tried some more to bicker, but she never did give in and let me have the argument I wanted. And I never did buy one of those splitters.Until I got one with my new headphones just a couple months back.

I sometimes think of that conversation, and her reasoning. It doesn't make any sense. At all. And yet, maybe it kind of does. I know it does enough that when I finally got myself a splitter, I sat for quite a while doing nothing at work, trying not to cry. No one ever tells you how long you keep missing your loved ones when they're gone; they can be quiet for long periods of time, so long sometimes you start to think maybe they're gone for good, but then something comes up, and the ache is sharp and jagged and yesterday, yesterday, yesterday.

I like to think of all of us that way. All of us, listening on one headphone. Getting just part of whatever song it is we're supposed to be hearing. And that's why we're scared, and that's why we're sad, and that's why we're lonely. Because we don't have all of what we need. So we all reach out, in one way or another, to try and find someone, anyone, who can tell us what the rest of the music is supposed to sound like. It has to be out there somewhere, right? How can a person live only hearing a part of everything? Not even half. We all get just a teeny, tiny piece of what we need, of what we want, and we have to fill in the blanks with the world around us. Friends, family, love, everything, all just desperate attempts to find the rest of what we're supposed to be hearing. Dreaming of the day we find it all, and the sounds make sense, and we don't have to be scared and lonely and confused anymore.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope 2013 is a good year for you. I hope you aren't stuck with just one headphone this year.

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