My husband and I share an audience of one

Retired now, Ken and I spend the bulk of our days happily at home. He studies Spanish and practices woodworking upstairs; I cozy in one floor below with my journal, word processor, and clarinet close at hand.

In our career years, we interrupted each other's work days via telephone for momentous bulletins only. But these days, we traipse up and down the steps to inform each other of such minor events as the arrival of a long-forgotten rebate check, or the discovery that our computer can send faxes.

Come midafternoon, I'll apprise Ken of what's for dinner; in turn, he'll treat me to an occasional "C'mere, you've got to see this!" - a sharp-shinned hawk perched in our maple tree, or the cat's latest coy antic.

Despite such interludes, our retirement lifestyle affords us plenty of solitude, which is why we make a point of spending evenings together, talking about everything and nothing. And that's when I'll catch Ken mumbling to himself: making mental notes, reviewing his to-do list half-aloud.

"Mem tawka fret abow neksweak," he said one recent evening after dinner, loading the dishwasher as I dispatched leftovers.

"Whose neck squeaked?" I asked.

He started from his reverie: "Pardon?"

"Were you speaking to me?"

"When?"

"Just now."

"Uh, I don't know. What did I say?"

"I couldn't tell. That's why I'm asking."

"Oh!" he exclaimed after a pause. "I was just thinking out loud that I should call Fred about that meeting next week."

As his brow refurrowed, I realized that once again I'd unwittingly derailed his semiprivate train of thought by presuming that he was speaking to me.

But he doesn't complain about my intrusions. Nor does his muttering bother me. When I'm in my spouse's company I, too, like to voice whatever's on my mind. Unlike Ken, however, I do so loudly and clearly, determined to be heard.

In fact, he likens my monologues to the ticker-tape stock-market report that runs nonstop across the bottom of that cable-news TV station. Whereas other married folks finish each other's sentences, most evenings he can only dream of capping my Old Faithful font-of-consciousness. For I am a reliable narrator of life's smallest incidents, including a simple afternoon sojourn through the supermarket parking lot.

"I went too fast down the first row and missed an open spot," I begin. "Then another car began backing out, just as I was passing. I started to back up and give him room, but there was someone right behind me."

As I warm to my mundane saga, Ken's eyes flit out the window, then longingly toward the newspaper lying across the table. Yet he bears with me all the way to my happy, if predictable ending: a parking spot secured at last.

During our work years, we were often too busy for anything but punch lines. But these days, we revel in our luxurious conversational opportunities. And just as he admits that he prefers chatting himself up when his marital muse is within earshot, I find I soon run out of oratorical steam without my captive (if less-than-rapt) nightly audience of one.

So what if he sometimes short-circuits that old sender-message-receiver model by playing both roles? He's merely trying to hear himself think.

Small wonder I'm a better sender than receiver, given how often my dear Mr. Mumbles says, "Never mind - I was talking to myself."

Like identical twins immersed in each other's company, it seems we're cultivating a language all our own, even though our styles are more antithetical than identical.

Thus we'll continue to issue brief news releases by day about corners neatly mitered, cadenzas trippingly descended, phrases turned succinctly in Spanish (and somewhat less succinctly in English).

We can wait with the details, knowing that, come evening, we will hang - for better or for worse - on each other's every word.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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