The Language of Soft Sounds

I STOOD at the counter peeling roast green peppers. The thin skin on the outside was brittle in places, but mostly it peeled off in little curly sheets and left the floppy meat bare.

The house was silent. Every few minutes there was a scrabbly sound of Tom turning a page of the paper in the other room. I thought to myself, ``Peeling green peppers is the quietest noise I make!'' For the next few peels, I enjoyed the tiny noiseless noises of my sleeve on the counter, the turning of the limp pepper in my hand, and the barely audible thirr of the skin coming clean off under the pinch of the paring knife against my thumb.

I let my mind run over other things I do that are that quiet. Getting the last bit of mayonnaise out of the jar might be that quiet if I'm using a rubber scraper. Use a spoon and you get those ear-jarring clinks of metal against glass. Stuffing dates, pushing a walnut into the cavity where the pit was and rolling the whole thing in powdered sugar, that's a comfortable non-noise.

THERE are some indicative noises to tell a spouse what you're up to: the rip of envelopes when you're getting ready to pay the bills, the thump of the iron on the ironing board as you stop to turn a shirt one more section over.

And then there are the huge noises you warn about: ``Big noise coming.'' Those are the kinds you can't hear the telephone over - circular saw, blender, vacuum cleaner, food processor, power drill.

Of course, there's middle-range noise, the kind where your spouse thinks you can hear if he says something, and you can hear that he's said something, but not what.

After 39 years, we have only recently worked out a good system. You don't yell ``What!?'' It's important not to do that. Because if you do, the person will only say it again, and you'll be right back where you started. You hold your breath, think about what the person might have said, continue your activity, and then stop. Only then do you call, ``I think you said something,'' and you try not to make it sound holier-than-thou when you say it.

``Soft'' is a poor benighted word these days, all stretched out of shape by new uses. As I started to call this essay ``Soft Sounds,'' I wondered if I could. ``Soft money'' is the stuff awarded in response to a grant proposal; it will run out just when you have finished research and your assistants need to go off to other better paying jobs before the final write-up is done. ``Software,'' as opposed to ``hardware,'' is an idea someone has worked months on to get produced so computers will have something to say. And as for ``soft porn,'' the oxymoron has a sticky feeling to it that makes me angry.

Those things have nothing to do with the gentle slurr of a towel on a clean plate, the rub of hand lotion from one stiff chapped hand to another, the glide of those easy, nice new pens that don't have to be pressed down at all when you're writing in your journal. Stirring soap when it's still runny is soft and silent, unless the wooden spoon taps the rim of the crock.

Years ago, when our children were little, silence, if a child was in the other room, could be disaster. That was different. It was one of life's great truths: If there were no noise, something rascally was going on. But with my husband and me, it's a matter of presence and breath and the threads that tie us together in space.

WE have a game, Tom and I, that's become a kind of love language. ``What's that noise you're making?'' he asks. He's sitting in the corner where the two of us usually sit together, reading, talking, listening to the opera, or watching TV. I'm just across the half partition in our greenhousey kitchen. I can see him and see out to the woods, too. Chopping nuts with the old green-handled chopper will elicit the question. Snipping twigs off a hemlock branch in preparation for making a wreath was a real poser.

When I'm making a noise I've never made before, starting a project where I'm using a tool altogether new to both of us, I wait and smile, hoping and knowing how his voice will sound as he asks the familiar question. Sometimes I tell him to guess. His guesses make us both laugh because he makes them silly.

``Cutting your alligator's toenails?''

``Nope.''

``No? I give up.''

For some reason, these innocent games are the ones that make me realize how fortunate we are, how much joy we have being together and how much I wish it would never end. I treasure these moments.

So we go right on rustling our papers, cutting cloth with the scissors that make a mysterious noise against the mahogany table, polishing the nubbly edge of a silver tray, and anticipating and knowing the delight of that familiar voice: ``What's that noise you're making?''

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