Speaking In Code

My husband left a flashlight on top of the coffeemaker after making the morning coffee. I was on my second cup, trying to wake up, when he came into the kitchen.

"Did you get my message?" he asked.

"Huh?" It was too early for talking.

"The flashlight?" he hinted. It was too early for thinking. I forced my synapses to fire.

"Coffee? Light?" It dawned on me. "Ahh. This is decaf?"

"Yes!" he shouted, triumphant. I winced. I needed caffeine. He went on.

"I couldn't find paper to write a note." He stood inches from the junk drawer full of sticky notes.

I said, "I'll tape a bottle of glue to the drawer. Get it? Sticky note?" It was the decaf talking.

Couples develop a secret code over time, familiar with each other's thinking patterns and speech rhythms. We see them in restaurants, staring at their food, or out the window, seemingly out of conversation. We used to feel sorry for them. Now we are them. It's not that we have nothing to say. We just say it more efficiently.

Knowing our code, I finish his sentences. He starts, "Have you seen? ..." I pop in with, "... the electric bill? On the desk."

"Where are my..."

"Black socks? Second drawer." (Where they always are. Every day.)

"Why don't we..."

"Go out for Chinese food? I'd love to!" (Sneaky, I'll admit.)

"I was going to say clean the basement," he says.

"Moo goo gai pan gives me strength."

He gets the car keys. "This is so much more efficient than normal conversation," he says. "We're saving half our breath."

Some friends joked that, after 35 years of marriage, they've started numbering their conversations. "Number 62 is about him tossing his dirty socks on the floor, six inches from the hamper," she said. He added, "And her checks are never recorded in the register. That's number 78." Now that's efficiency.

A few days later, on a road trip, I restated my view on a matter we'd discussed for several weeks. When I came up for air, he seized his opportunity.

"Conversation number 57, and my response is No. 1: You're absolutely right, Dear," he said. I could tell he didn't mean it.

"Well," I huffed. "Counter-reply 10 to you: You should use No. 1 more often."

"No. 10 to you, too," he huffed back. We rode incommunicado for several miles. I sulked, reading a paperback while he hummed along with the oldies on the radio. Finally he broke the silence. "What were we talking about again?"

I grabbed a pen and flipped my book to the blank pages in the back. I scribbled the numeral 5 on a page, tore it out and waved it at him.

"And what does that mean?" I shoved the paper closer to emphasize my point. He read my mind. "Oh, I get it! No. 5 is I'm not speaking to you,' right?" I quickly scribbled a "1" and held it up. He mumbled something that sounded like "37, 19, 106, 73 ... and 10." He just had to have the last number!

Miles later, as we pulled into a rest stop, God reminded me of Ephesians 4:29, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up. ..." I had learned to nag by number. Not what God had in mind.

I quietly tore a page from the book, wrote "3?" and held it up. He gave me a questioning look.

"I'm sorry. Forgive me?" I asked. He smiled. I smiled. No words or numbers needed.

One morning, we heard a news sound bite from a speech given by the president the day before. I heard the president say something unusual and commented on it. Hubby corrected me. "No, the president said . . ."

I argued, "He did not say that!" And around we went again. I left for work in a snit, making a mental note to make an appointment to have his hearing checked.

That evening when I came home, I saw a note taped to the VCR: "Push Play." I did. A taped segment of the president's speech revealed, to my horror, the president saying exactly what my husband claimed he said. The clip ended. The image faded from the president to an image of my beloved, arms folded, looking sideways into the camera. In his best Paul Harvey voice, he said, "And there you have ... the rest of the story." Creative. Gentle. Just like my husband.

Time invested together has given us the gift of subtler communication a language of looks, touches and silent signals that speak volumes. Words might get in the way. Our secret code reminds us how close we are, how much ground we've covered together, and calls us back home when we've drifted away. We're familiar territory to each other, and that kind of familiarity breeds contentment.

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