Jess and I were sitting in bed when she first asked, "What are you thinking?" It seemed like a simple request for information, so I gave a simple answer. "Nothing."
We repeated this dialogue over the next month—in the car, on a walk, even in the middle of a church service. Always the same unassuming inquiry: "What are you thinking?" Almost always the same cheerful response: "Nothing."
Imagine my surprise when Jess sat me down one night and—holding back tears—asked a new, bulkier question: "Are you attracted to someone else?"
I was stunned, then angry at what I considered to be an accusation. "What? No! Why would you ask that?"
"Because you never talk to me any more. You're always staring into space, thinking of something other than me." After a short pause, she accused: "Of someone other than me!"
We had ourselves a long night (not in the good way).
The next day, we made up with kisses and confessions, but we treated only the symptoms of our fight—the angry words and accusations. We didn't get to the root issues: her fear about my thought life, and my ignorance of the chance to reassure her. Consequently, Jess became self-conscious about asking "the question," and I figured the issue had run its course.
After a few months, however, the pressure of the unknown became too great. We were again sitting peacefully in bed when she tapped me on the arm and said, "What are you thinking?"
Bright red lights flashed in my mind. Warning! Danger ahead! Afraid of starting another argument, I made up something: "Uh, I was just thinking how beautiful your eyes are in the lamplight, sweetheart." She smiled, gave me a big kiss, and went back to her book.
Whew! I thought. Crisis averted.
But two days later, she asked me the same question. She asked it again the next day, and two times the day after that. I made up an answer every time, and she seemed satisfied. But the guilt of being dishonest with my wife began to wear on me.
Now I was the one with the inner turmoil, and she was happily ignorant of my suffering.
The breakthrough came one Sunday afternoon while I was watching football and Jess and her friend Joy were making jewelry. As they talked, Joy mentioned a book she was reading.
"It's called Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti," she said, "and it explains the differences in how men and women think."
Since a commercial was on, I listened to her explanation. According to the book, men are like waffles because they process information into separate boxes. Women, on the other hand, receive information and connect it with other areas in their lives—like spaghetti. The whole thing was only vaguely interesting until Joy said, "And the weird thing is, guys even have a compartment in their brains for 'nothing.'"
This was the answer I'd looked for!
"Really?" Jess asked, frowning. "Guys can sit and think about nothing?"
"Yep," Joy answered. "My husband says he does it all the time."
Jess and I locked eyes and smiled sheepishly.
Later that night, I confessed my dishonesty when Jess asked "the question" and explained that I really did think about nothing sometimes.
She told me how uneasy it made her feel when "nothing" was my only answer. She felt as though I had to be covering up something.
So we set up an experiment. For one minute, Jess vocalized every thought that passed through her mind. I was shocked. She talked the entire minute and covered 10
separate subjects! No wonder she had trouble believing "nothing" was an honest summary of my thoughts.
Then it was my turn. "Work went well today," I said after 15 seconds had passed. "I finished an important project." More silence stretched out. "I'd like to go back to La Estancia for our date this week."
When the minute was up, it was Jess's turn to be shocked. But when I affirmed that those were the only reflections that had drifted through my mind, she believed me. More important, she understood that my past claims to be thinking about nothing were genuine, not feeble attempts to cover impurity.
"I promise to be honest from now on whenever you ask me what I'm thinking—even if it's nothing," I said.
Today, Jess still asks "the question," and sometimes my answer is "nothing." But now I think harder before responding. To my amazement, I remember something I meant to talk with her about, and a conversation blossoms.
Sam and Jess O'Neal: married 5 years; met: by e-mail through a mutual friend; favorite novel: Peace Like a River; favorite activity: anything involving interesting animals
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