Scenes From A Marriage: A Review

There is a brilliant passage in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which the Ramsay’s house—against the backdrop of the horrific clamor of The Great War—remains oblivious to the chaos of man-made destruction, slowly giving in to the pace and rhythms of nature. It came to my mind every time I pressed “cancel autoplay” while binge-watching Scenes From a Marriage, just to keep looking at the final shots of hustling ants, thawing snow, leaves rustling under the tiny paws of squirrels as the final credits rolled.

Onscreen, a conflict unfolded of a different kind. With strange fascination, bordering almost on sadistic pleasure, I gazed at the progressive dissolving of a family unit, no longer solid and successful as the first scene would have us all believe. Minutes into the first episode, an excruciatingly polite PhD student asks a clean-cut middle-class couple a series of somewhat nosy questions as part of her research. Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) sits back, relaxed, boasting his theories on the pragmatics of monogamy; Mira (Jessica Chastain), meanwhile, scratches her forearm, forcing a fake smile. Something’s off, this much we can tell even without having read the IMBD synopsis, and the student can tell as well, giving Mira a probing look.

But why our curiosity? Why this deep need to peek through the window of somebody else’s house to witness yet another mundane calamity of divorce? In his famous opening to Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote that, although all happy families are pretty much the same, the unhappy ones each face their predicament in their own particular way.

This doesn’t seem true. Obviously, suffering makes far better artwork material than bliss. But the ways in which we suffer and render that suffering are no less scripted than those of joy. This is perhaps the intent behind the beginning of each episode: we see the actors arrive on set, with crew members rushing by, cameras rolling, final makeup touch-ups being made. We are shown clearly that this is all pretense—we are reminded of it each time (five times in one binging session, in my case)—that the anguish we see is scripted. And yet, it all seems no less raw, no less real in the slightest. Hypnotized, I kept watching others’ wounds being inflicted and re-opened, because doing so feels like scratching an itch that’s much closer to home.

Chastain and Isaac’s quintuple feat of acting skills is not just a tale of a particularly messy divorce; it is also, perhaps most importantly, a story about how hard it is to let go—of the people we love, yes; but also of the people we used to be when that love was less complicated; and—perhaps most subtly and interestingly—of the objects that surrounded us while we loved the people we loved in this less complicated way. And why is the last one so hard, one can’t help but wonder, seeing Mira in the last-but-one episode, making a fuss about not getting a couch, just after professing her nonchalance to material objects as a sign of maturity and liberation superior to her husband’s? Or listening in on a phone conversation she has with her daughter while waiting for the movers, the little girl obsessing over the boxfuls of dolls she left behind. Or watching Jonathan admit to his ex-wife, long after the breakup, that driving past their old house has become an obsession of his. Of course, we could dismiss all these worries as mere excuses, ways the characters try to distract themselves from something more important, more poignant. But are they, really? Is the poignancy of a forsaken couch not powerful enough? Why can’t it be about things—the props, the décor of good times past?

This fondness for things is perhaps most obvious in the final episode, where the long-divorced couple decides to rent their old house as an Airbnb. Unable to resist this urge to peep into other people’s lives and play house in their former home, when they step in to the ruins of their former life, now tastefully furnished by their successors, a sense of unease sets in: the awkwardness of physically occupying the space once so familiar that is no longer theirs. But then, the mood changes. There is a strange comfort in knowing that the things you had desperately hoped for just didn’t work out. Perhaps because the gloom over them not having lasted dims in the relief of knowing that there’s no need to prove anybody wrong anymore—no need to try to make it last. Walking into that space, once so meaningfully laden and now empty—not even haunted, just vacant—you realize that there can be no coming back. The space, now changed beyond recognition, is no longer your own. This realization might make you feel nostalgic, like Jonathan, or even angry, like Mira, but eventually both of these feelings give way to the relief that this newly found space “is what it is, and is not what is not.”

Scenes From a Marriage tells a story about how desperately we hold on to things when the mirages of bygone feelings attack us with confusing force. It’s not just that petty grievances over objects can become our only way of venting frustration far too powerful to be put into words. It’s also about how we seek comfort in them; how we try to take shelter in their concreteness against the onslaught of the inevitable albeit unforeseen cataclysms of which—just like Jonathan—we perceive ourselves as innocent victims. Perhaps only to discover, like he eventually did, that our illusions of innocence and moral superiority over the ones who hurt us are just one more thing too difficult to let go of. Only then do we find out that the writing had been there all along, on the walls of the house we had been trying to put up precariously, against all odds. And when the props are taken down and the scenery has been changed, much like the protagonists of Scenes from a Marriage, at least we can rest assured that no one could tell us we didn’t try. And this, I would argue, is the ultimate pull of such dramas. It’s nice to sit back, relax, and watch somebody else do the trying for a change. It’s not that we want them to fail—it’s just that watching them inevitably do so in the end can make us feel less alone with failings of our own.

A Lucky Misfortune

“This is delicious,” stated my date, mouth filled, beautiful as ever. I never thought I could be attracted to the way someone ate til now. She’d suggested this place and told me how wonderful the menu options were. We had crossed paths at the local Sunday market; she had been selling her homemade soaps and I bought a hundred dollars’ worth as an excuse to ask for her number. Her name was Susie and she had moved here a couple months ago. A fresh face from the limited stock of women that roamed this tiny town.

Our waitress stopped by to refill our waters, avoiding any eye contact with both of us. Mostly avoiding Susie. The waitress was nervous—or I assumed so—she looked pale, as if this was her first time being a server. She stayed closer to me, acting as if Suzie wasn’t there. Had I missed something or was I just being crazy? I looked around: it was as if every worker was avoiding Susie’s gaze. It was odd. She was beautiful, and, from what she’d told me, she came here a lot.

As the meal came to an end, the waitress delivered the bill, and I handed her my card. Upon returning, she dropped fortune cookies on the table.

“Their fortune cookies are the best; they make them from scratch,” Suzie boasted. I cracked mine open: Beauty is the devil’s best tactic.

No surprise at the random and generic comment given on the tiny paper. Opening the book to retrieve my card however, I noticed a note on the receipt written in bright red ink, Please. Get home safe.

A comment like this from a server wasn’t unusual, but something felt off about it. Suzie peered over, probably wondering what I could be making such a face over.

“Oh, they write that for everyone,” she chuckled.

The multiple beers that I’d consumed during dinner seemed to be kicking in. “I need to use the bathroom before we go,” I said as I rose from my chair. Practically racing to the bathroom, I opened the door and grabbed the closest stall.

I zipped up my pants and proceeded to the sink, adjusting my collar and making sure I still looked decent. Decent enough. As I washed my hands, I noticed a fortune cookie on the corner of the counter. Pretty sure it wasn’t there when I entered, but I had been focused on making it to the toilet, so maybe I missed it? I picked it up and it was still warm to the touch: “freshly made,” I remembered. I unwrapped the still-soft cookie to retrieve the fortune, hoping it would be better than my first.

Unraveling the greasy paper to encounter the same red ink, I read,

She is not who she says she is. Don’t end up like the others.

Missing Ingredient

Caramellic bitterness explodes the kitchen. I’ve turned my back on a saucepan of sugar for a second, and now it’s more tarpit than syrup. Dumping my disappointment down the sink, I re-gather ingredients: shredded coconut, raw sugar, a cup of water, four cardamom pods, resting in the cracks on my countertop, and a teaspoon of ghee. I’m about to mix the sugar into the coconut but freeze. Something’s missing.

I wrap my knuckles on the counter with culinary frustration. This recipe is a letter with no address. How do I move forward?

Nariyal Methai is a simple complexity. Previous attempts were catastrophic. First attempt, forgot the ghee and it fell apart. Second attempt, too much ghee made soup. No more mistakes. I phone a higher power.

*

– You’re finally getting married!

– Mum, how did you get marriage from Nariyal Methai?

– There’s two reasons people in Fiji make those sweets. Weddings or excess coconuts. And I don’t think coconuts are in season in Shoreditch right now.

– Have you got Dadi’s recipe?

– She never wrote anything down. No schooling. She couldn’t write her name. Why do you need a recipe? You were there when she made it. You were seven. Never left her side as she cooked. … So are you getting married?

– I’ll call tomorrow.

*

I hang up. Memories trespass my mind. I’m leaning on the kitchen counter, but I could be anywhere. Anywhere on the planet. Anywhere in time. And the river of time takes me back to the tropics.

*

Sultry is a Suva afternoon. The air is sticky as guava pulp. Cicadas sing incessantly. On a veranda, I sit on the floor and gaze at my grandmother. Dadi’s round as an orange. Her skin shines like molasses. Her sari is a sail, white, and dream-like. Seated on a board with a serrated edge, she scrapes the flesh from coconuts. She can’t speak English. I know no Hindi. We watch each other like chess players. The cruel blade cuts her. I wince. She wraps her hand in cotton and continues as if pain is endured, not healed. A tear escapes her eye. The liquid evacuee falls into the mixture as she stirs and shapes it into balls. She gives me one. Lightness. Coolness. Like snowfall in my mouth.

*

The mixture grows impatient with my reminiscing. I add a pinch of salt and taste. It does the trick. My tongue remembers Fiji. I shape the mixture into spheres ready for chilling and consider Dadi. She was denied paper and pen, yet her recipes are letters traveling through time. And this dessert, a letter lost now found, brings sweet melancholy. My grandmother fed her family happiness every day of her life. But what of hers? Did she dream of stars, flakes of coconut strewn across the universe? Who would she have been if she could just write her name? I reach for a sweet but hesitate and refrigerate them. I walk away. I feel full.

Giovanni’s Other Room

David,

After the lack of reply to my last two letters, I thought I’d stop writing. Perhaps the prison authorities are censoring my mail. Perhaps you have left Paris. Perhaps—it is a harsh winter—the mail trucks slid off icy roads and burst into flames.

Perhaps I think you are too numb to reply. I can see you leaving my letters on a kitchen table until nightfall, and then reading them while drunk. Afterwards, you slump towards the largest window in the house to stare at the moon and the frost and your own reflection. You think grand, melancholic thoughts about how tomorrow will be “the most terrible morning of your life.” Yet it’s not you the guillotine waits for.

But I have to write, whether my words reach you or not. You once asked me, in disbelief, what kind of a life two men can have together. This I must tell you.

There was a prisoner—Andrzej. He was Polish, and he spoke little French. It doesn’t matter. Where words fail, eyes do the talking—eventually, when you bring yourself to lift them from the bare stone floor. And when you do, you see from across the prison yard that he is handsome like you wouldn’t believe, strong and kind. He was a builder, with hands like two blocks of granite. With these hands, he very delicately brushed snow from his shoulder. With eyes and hands, you can build a language.

Eyes screwed shut: I didn’t sleep; did you?

Slow blink: I love you.

Repeated exchanges, like long-cohabiting lovers saying the same things to each other daily…

Here, there are no secrets. We have no glamour left, no masks with which to seduce. We see and know each other at our worst. The sordid mess of our lives screams and rebounds off the walls.

Did you read about the riot here? (I’m sure they will censor this—but I have nothing to lose.) I didn’t escape, alas. But something happened: Andrzej came to my room—my cell, I mean. We had an hour together amid the chaos and confusion. Amid my fetid sheets, dirty clothes, and lice. Nothing else: just another’s presence, a hand in mine, knowing that, if our lives had gone differently and fate had allowed it, he would’ve liked nothing more than to stay. To mix his sheets with mine, to carve his shape into my mattress, to watch our breaths interlace on the window and make beautiful frozen shapes.

That was Andrzej. He is no longer of this earth, as they say. I hope they will take me soon, that this will be my last letter, for I have nothing else to say to you, David, except that you are no longer in my thoughts. I only hope that, one day, you will put the bottle down, leave the window, stand before a mirror, and not look away until what you have seen is unshakable.

Once yours,

Giovanni

Solstice

I don’t know where I’m headed, only that I have to go.

Go away from this room with a crackling fire and splintered wooden floors, away from the guests who throw me sympathetic glances. The kind of glances that say, I’m glad it didn’t happen to my husband.

I slip out the backdoor, shoving my feet into his snow boots. They’re two sizes too large, and the only shoes I’ve worn in weeks. The freshly fallen snow crunches under my feet. The air is breathlessly cold, the kind of icy air that buries itself into your chest. The kind of cold no fires, no cups of hot tea can shake.

A sliver of a moon—Alejandro always could have told me what phase. The stars that twinkle in the velvety black sky remind me of the glitter my niece Emma scatters on almost every painting for kindergarten. It is enough to find my way across our yard, out the wooden gate Alejandro kept saying he was going to replace. I stumble once, twice, but don’t fall.

I use my cell phone light to find the sidewalk. By now I’m shivering, despite Alejandro’s wool coat. The one I always joked made him look like an old man. His scent is already gone—it left the day he did, as if he never wore it at all.

I’ve been visiting Alejandro every day, though my parents don’t know it. I say I’m headed to Starbucks to work on freelance articles, even though I haven’t written a single word since he died.

I wonder how long it will take them—with the guests that they are entertaining, the warm cocoa and gingersnaps—to notice I haven’t returned.

His grave is fresh and new, smooth as a baby’s skin. The thought would make me cry, but I am too numb to cry. I lie with my head against his grave. I press my mittens to the ground, as if I can feel his heart beat just once more. The wind whistles in my ear, a painful, potent reminder that I am still alive.

I proposed to Alejandro on a ski trip. The one and only time I went skiing—and I spent more of it off my skis than on. What if we never make it back? I’d asked, panicked, as he admitted he wasn’t sure what slope we were on. I’d already proposed; he’d already accepted.

Falling asleep in the snow with you, he said, kissing me, wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

They say it’s the shortest day of the year. It is also the longest night. Solstice—a fitting day to return home.

But just as I close my eyes, I feel it.

Imperceptible. A tiny kick. So subtle I think I imagine it.

“Alejandro?” I whisper.

The missed period. The nausea. All of which I labeled as stress, another symptom of loss.

Our child kicks again. Only then do I rise, braving the walk home. Not to Alejandro, but to light.

Christened

From a photo album, from behind my cherubic face, a note fell out and landed on my foot. Neatly written. One page. My father’s handwriting.

“I wish,” he said, “that my father had been around to see you.”

It was dated October 19, 1971.

The day I came to be.

There are stories I would learn—

The horse in the backyard.

The watch in the attic.

The flood in the cellar.

His serious, black-and-white wedding photo would sit on our mantelpiece, almost expressionless, as if love were not the reason he was standing there. Like he was in a line to buy something that everyone else in the neighborhood already owned. He was just the last to submit to getting one.

I had never seen the letter before. Tucked there so perhaps it might fall out when I was in my fifties and needing reminders of where I came from. Instead, it fell out in my thirties, when different stories were being told of my grandfather.

The girls in the barn.

The two-by-four and the boy.

The daughters and aunts and nieces.

The basement.

The uncles traveling to Weymouth Cemetery on a drunken night and urinating all over his gravestone.

I held the letter and read it in its entirety, a father of his first son reaching out to a father of his last son. He was on a plane, returning from a business trip, sad that he had not witnessed my arrival, but wanting to share it with someone. So proud in that moment. So free of the truth that half his family knew. The women.

“I wish that my father had been around to see you.”

I glanced at the photo album, at the opposite page. The day of my birth became the first two to three months. The proud father stood at a white marble dish, joined by his wife holding an older child. A daughter. A priest perched between them, all stuffy white robes, stern face. A christening.

Flanked by the family from behind. The patriarch included. Thick as an outhouse. Dark suit. Hands crossed at his belly.

I checked the date on the note again.

I read the first line again.

“I wish that my father had been around to see you.”

And there he was. Seeing me. In moments, holding me. A rough set of lips kissing my bald head. An attempt at a smile for the camera.

Attempts at smiles all around me.

How would a man not know when his father died? Write me a eulogy as if he were…?

All the good encapsulated, insulated in that form, outlasting the other stories.

I folded the note.

I replaced it behind the baby photo.

I closed the album.

The Art of Pivot and Flit

Dear Septimus,

I’m certain you’re surprised by this letter, but an extraordinary revelation has reached me, and in part it is thanks to you. Yesterday evening, as my sister Rachel placidly embroidered and described her day, I found I heard the songs of moths that danced above the mantelpiece. Their bawdiness is inexhaustible. Whilst a pair warbled obscene duets, a third flapped vile wings and swooped towards my pompadour. My hand slapped up a second too late, creating an updraft that drove the creature into my ear.

The little thing’s scream vibrated my cochlea. I shook my head, hoping to crumple her antennae, but that only prompted shrieks more deafening.

Aware of Rachel eyeing me askance, I hissed at the moth to calm herself.

In response, she rudely spat, “Wing spreader! Soul spiker!”

I had no doubt she referred to my pastime of collecting butterflies, which some believe to be souls of the deceased. She muttered of the net she’s seen me carry. To feel her dread, you’d think it a blood-soaked sword.

Rachel asked with concern after my health. I lied that I was perfectly well and excused myself to bed.

Eager to placate the insect in my ear, I vowed to henceforth indulge my passion for lepidoptery only in pursuit of butterflies, never moths. At that, her fright did subside.

In the darkness, I listened with intrigue as my moth detailed the freedom to be had if I learnt to exploit my femininity. She sighed of love, of lust, of things I’ve never dared consider, and described flirtations – the art of pivot and flit, not to mention the alluring power of fragrance.

And I recalled you, the chorister I adored who betrayed me. For seven years you moaned my name as though it scorched your mouth but turned to others to sooth the burn.

That’s enough to sour any woman.

What if I were to collect men as I gather butterflies?

It’s a shocking idea, yet one that makes my heart waltz. Having experienced your callousness, I’m certain a man would be just as agonized to be dallied with and abandoned.

My moth has taught me I have that power. At that thought, I confess, I feel a dizzying thrill.

My dreams last night brimmed with nectar-rich blooms and sweetly rotting windfalls.

When dawn came, I woke to find my moth gone. I would mourn her if it wasn’t for the glimpse of one shadowed wing beyond the windowpane.

I fold this letter to resemble a moth’s wing and hope it will reach your hands and heart. Too many I’ve sent you without response – surely all cannot have been lost!

Today I vow no more letters to you and no more moths for me. Instead I shall seek pleasure in studying butterflies and pinning the hearts of men.

I owe you deep gratitude for contributing to this plan.

Yours in earnestness,

M. F.

Choose your letters carefully

Whenever I walk into a room, he leaves. We exchange no words. Not even a glance in each other’s direction. After several weeks, this dance has become second nature to us. He now sleeps in the spare bedroom. Our teenage kids no longer ask questions.

On Friday morning, the sun creeps in slowly through the kitchen window, making promises it won’t keep. It shines on the sink, piled high with dirty dishes, food encrusted on the once smooth white surface of the plates. Crumbs and coffee stains speckle the countertop. I can’t bear to look. For too many years, I’ve been expected to do everything. I stopped when I realised I had become the maid.

I eat breakfast quickly, cleaning my own bowl before returning it carefully to the cupboard. Walking into the hallway, I’m unable to stop myself from robotically straightening the rug. As I reach into the cupboard for my coat, something falls to the floor, and I momentarily contemplate leaving it there. Bending down, I pick up a tub of magnetic letters, long since abandoned by my fifteen-year-old daughter. Their bright, enticing colours bring a forgotten smile to my face, and I’m eight years old again. Returning to the kitchen, I attach the following letters to the fridge door: clean the dishes

That evening, I’m home later than usual. The house is unusually peaceful. He is out. The kids are at their friends. I walk into the kitchen. The dishes are still piled high in the sink. I turn and see that he has added words to the fridge door—your turn

Annoyed, I instinctively I lift my hand, ready to send his letters scattering. But I stop myself mid-swipe. Glancing towards the tub of leftover letters, I smile and reach my hand inside. My fingers swirl until I find an “o” tangled amongst a raft of consonants. I lift it out and place it carefully under his “n.”

your turn

              o

That night, I sleep better than I have in years.

The following morning, at precisely two minutes past eight, I peel back the duvet, exposing my bare skin to the cold air of the room. I lay silently, basking in the joy of doing nothing. Half an hour later, when I enter the kitchen, the dishes are still putrefying in the sink, and the letter “w” has appeared on the fridge.

your turn

               o

               w

Days ago, I would have been livid. But not now. I take my time selecting more letters, pulling apart those that have magnetised together. After caressing the solid shapes between my fingers, I add “hat” to our ever-growing crossword puzzle.   

your turn

               o

               what It may be childish, but I’m not backing down. My heartbeat quickens as I leave the kitchen, pleased that these letters have found a new purpose after being abandoned by my children’s sticky, wet fingers. It just goes to show that there’s a second life in all of us, even when we think there’s not.  

time stops in midwinter

She goes northwest in the winter.

It is tradition after all. I, ever your loyal ally guarding these far marches of your kingdom, and you, crowning your great mountain, defying the long dark. When else should we meet?

She cradles the wooden box from the train to her bed, where she waits for the jetlag to lower her head to the pillow.

The journey was treacherous. Too many horses, too many men—lost to the snows, the fell squirming things under frozen soil, the clawed hordes haunting tree and cave. Who among us could ever find sleep?

Fires are lit, songs are sung, programs watched, and a feast prepared for the holy day.

This day, the shortest of them all . . . we should have sung the lays of treasure-seekers beneath the sea and lovers that leaned down from the stars to kiss these great peaks. Would that we may have been in such songs. We know their pain well, but the wine we drink is more bitter.

The letters had been found in the box, inside half a stone arch, in a ruin in the woods. It had been eaten by rain, wind, and the soil of sliding land. It seemed strange that time should reveal the box, rather than bury it. Rather than held reverently in her young hands, the letters should have been broken down to dust-motes, caught in the old gold sunlight of the dying year.

But we, undying as we are, simply carry our stories and our time, do we not? We shoulder them and pray that we will add a new chapter with each year, and ours should have been a book never-ending. Yet what I found here was a ruin. After these centuries, the siege finally broke. Your banners carried the day—but could not carry you.

She fancies the letter writer is a man, and that he is a captain. Something in the slant of the letters, perhaps, though her older sister tells her that’s superstition, not science.

She fancies he is not human—why should he speak of not dying, of centuries of war? Her grandfather has answers to everlasting life that he doles out so close to the holy day, but something tells her that this isn’t what the captain meant.

She fancies the writer may not even be of this world—or his world may be long lost. There are no towering hills recorded here. She has checked every map in the local library and antique shops. Their mountains are low now, old as time, and sinking back into the earth. She sits before the fire, clutching the final page of the final letter while her loved ones are in the other room. She fancies the captain loved the king, too.

I go to your pyre now, our life committed to these pages. I bury them, to be fed to the roots of the mountain. Unseen, yes, but alive forever. Perhaps, year on year, they will grow back up to kiss the stars.

Message in a Bottle

When we were young, we wrote a message in a bottle and launched it into the future. You fetched an old Coke can from the loft where you slept and a scrap of paper for us to scribble on. I don’t remember what we wrote, but we must have thought it was important. You signed it with your old name, the one you didn’t keep. Now it feels like a foreign object on my tongue.

We gathered on the bridge to drop it over the cleft of the waterfall. We watched it float downstream together, away from your grandfather’s cabin and my grandmother’s farm. We imagined it catching in a tangle of tree roots alongside the riverbank, or being swept out by the current to Long Island Sound. We envisioned it finding different countries, different shores. For years, I inspected every stray piece of litter on the beach. I never found it. I didn’t know it would be one of the last times I saw you. You changed your school. You changed your name. Our lives spun away from each other like a bottle bobbing adrift on the current. But I know that like our bottle, you’re just around the next bend in the river. If I wanted to reach you, I know how.

I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote a love letter to my depression

I open your body and observe

the wasteland—dirt, reduction, and poison

with barbed-wire breath more comforting

than your empty heartbeat. In turn,

you open mine and search for a word

that means my worship. Tell me,

you say. Your body is a ravaged battlefield

of unspoken prayers. Your body

imposing mycelium. Your body enveloping mine.

I say, revival. I whisper, loneliness.

///

Shades of black. The most beautiful

darknesses you were. My skin shivers

from your familiar touch, the stomach

snaking deeper into itself in blurry

recoil. Bones house the horrors

ringing in the crevices of the hollow—

we made love too often

for my own taste. Our habit was

to keep the window open so that

we both could breathe the autumn

atmosphere of dusk remnants and colder

whispers. In that, I mean

you were always such a tease,

a metastasizing fear of falling

further into insanity until

only the shell remained. Blood

turned to liquid shadows. Heart

turned to stopwatch. The outside

turned to a smallness I’ve only

known in the worst dreams,

the most careful of nightmares.

Superman and Super Listening

I don’t recall ever having a dream where I was flying, but I did have a recurring Superman dream when I was a little kid. My baby sister was getting old enough to move out of my parents’ room and into my room. I was going into my older brother’s room. My brother was going into a new addition over the garage, which had shifted the house even more. Going into my brother’s room came with sleeping in a larger trundle bed, which had another pullout mattress inside the frame. This bed was like sleeping on a sturdy wooden ship.

The recurring dream was that I would hide myself between the wall and heavy headboard like it was a dark cave. In reality, the bed was too close to the wall for me to fit and too heavy for me to move on my own as a child. In the dream, I would be coaxed out of this hiding place each night by the characters I watched on television, like the gang on Sesame Street or Super Friends, a seventies children’s cartoon with the DC Comics characters. There was never a crossover of different show characters, but when it was the Super Friends, I remember Superman taking the lead. He didn’t stand with his hands on his hips for a scared boy to be in awe of but took a knee and came down to my level. I remember him listening to me, and I would wake up as I came out of my self-enclosure.

Looking back on that dream, I can see the younger version of myself felt lost in the shuffle with everything going on in the house but was also in the early stages of pleasing people. I couldn’t talk it out with an adult. But Superman listened. It’s known that Superman has Super Hearing, but I would like to talk about his Super Listening and what I have learned from Clark Kent about active listening.

Active listening is the process of not only giving someone your attention but also being aware of your verbal and nonverbal messaging/body language while they are talking and then conveying back that you have heard what they said. For myself, it has helped me zero in on my communication with others and eliminate pausing to talk next. Active listening allows me to acknowledge and process information better when speaking with someone else and helps a conversation get to the root of the matter.

I propose that Clark Kent puts active listening into action every day working as a reporter for the Daily Planet. He travels around the world and interviews people, getting to know what the human spirit can and cannot handle on its own when it comes to news-related tragedies. It is through active listening that Clark knows when he hears, “This is a job for Superman.”

Clark Kent’s Super Hearing allows him to constantly be alerted to all the troubles going on in the world, but growing up on Earth gives him the insight to avoid inserting his narrative into Earth’s affairs and to only intervene when he is needed. Clark’s home planet Krypton was destroyed because people didn’t listen to what was going on around them despite his father Jor-El’s warnings. Jor-El was only able to save his son Kal-El (Clark) by sending him to Earth in a rocket, where our Sun grants him his powers. With Earth as his adoptive home, Clark became intrinsically human and thus developed his Super Listening over time. Given the tragedy of Krypton and all his powers, Clark could react based on his home planet’s history, heedlessly respond to every call for help, and constantly overstep making sure Earth doesn’t destroy itself like Krypton did. Instead, he chooses to actively listen to us.

I use “Clark Kent” and not “Superman” to discuss active listening because Clark Kent is not a secret identity. He is Superman’s identity and that’s his secret. During the Golden Age of Superman, this wasn’t always the case and it’s illustrated by the opening of the 1950s television show Adventures of Superman. A viewer can conceptualize a stunning visual guide of the hero’s powers, including beyond-average strength and speed, as they see the images of a train rocketing by or a firing gun under voiceovers like “stronger than a locomotive” and “faster than a speeding bullet.” But the line in the show opening—“in his disguise as Clark Kent,” a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper—creates a misconception that Clark Kent is not Superman but a costume. Clark has a Fortress of Solitude hidden in the Arctic for contemplation and to remember his Kryptonian culture. Here, he can remind himself where he came from and who he currently is on Earth: Superman. This introspection allows Clark to give us the space to work out our problems and to know when he is truly needed.

Writer/artist John Byrne relaunched Superman in 1986 with the miniseries The Man of Steel, which helped to reframe Superman in a more relatable way. In the miniseries, Byrne kept the adoptive parents of Jonathan and Martha Kent in the modern era of Superman stories. The Kents were the farming family from Kansas who found the rocket ship of Krypton’s orphaned lone survivor. Before the relaunch, comic book readers only saw the Kents appear in Superboy flashback stories set in his boyhood town of Smallville, Kansas. Keeping the Kents as supporting characters, Byrne helped to establish Superman’s humanity and that it was Clark Kent who was Superman. The biggest reason for the relaunch was that people couldn’t relate to a hero who was so powerful they were juggling planets. The Man of Steel miniseries was seen as making Superman more relatable by diminishing his power level and making things more challenging for him. The miniseries also established that his skills as an active listener were honed by having the Kents in his life. Television shows like Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997) and Smallville (2001-2011) would deal with the nurturing relationship of the Kent family. The foundation of Smallville was that the parents were always available for their alien teen son to talk about what he was dealing with and changes he was going through as his powers developed. These conversations were about physical challenges Clark faced, his romantic interests, or a young Lex Luthor, a friendship that turned antagonistic over the series.

Super Listening is my answer to why Superman doesn’t go around solving all the world’s problems. He has listened to us as Clark Kent, who has reported back on what he heard and is giving us a proper response. Alternative stories of a Superman type gone bad show that they are turned by their Super Hearing. Mark Waid’s Irredeemable from Boom! Studios showed the Superman-like main character, The Plutonian, hitting his tipping point because he can no longer take the barrage of criticism he is constantly hearing around the world. The third season of Amazon Prime’s The Boys has Homelander literally tell everyone to shut up and that he is better than them on live television as the character progresses beyond his breaking point from earlier seasons. Even Batman is closed off to listening. His mission is to make sure that no one suffers like he did on the night his parents were shot. The difference between a shut-off hero in Gotham and a listening hero in Metropolis is literally night and day.

As a young child who dreamed of Superman to talk to about my problems, I would go out into the waking world looking for actual people who would listen to me over the years. Sometimes I would find people who would listen but be manipulative afterwards. They would convey that they were listening but then tag on their own agenda. I learned that the other side of active listening was to not let people take advantage of you and to see these red flags. Through therapy, I have worked on a stronger sense of self, and have worked out when people have kept me grounded for their own purposes and who have helped me to fly on my own. I have also worked on my own team of Super Friends, people that I know I can trust to go to for active listening in conversation. My wife calls them all Team Dom. I consider my family part of the team too. Over the years, we have learned to be open about what we are feeling with each other and what I have been going through with mental health. These are small steps along the way that we can take to destigmatize the conversation around mental health. Active listening is something that can help with mental health awareness that doesn’t take a leap over a building in a single bound. I have found that being there to listen, to really listen, to someone isn’t just a job for Superman.