Saturday proved to be overcast and full on gloomy weather. Emily woke around 10 am, the apartment quiet, Amanda had probably left for work already. Emily rolled over and covered her face with a pillow, the day could wait. Sometime around noon she finally dragged herself out of bed, made some coffee and sat on the couch watching the newscaster announce the tragedies of the day. She put the captions on just to see what it was like to follow a live broadcast.
Amanda spent her day at the art gallery, Touch. It was around 5:00 when she got home and music was blaring out of the apartment. Amanda walked in and threw her keys in the green mason jar by the door, just like Emily did. As she shut the door she saw Emily in the open living room, painting. She was angrily sweeping the brush across the canvas while Brahms played over the stereo. Amanda had studied art in college while Emily studied music, but between the two of them they both grew to appreciate the other. For Emily, painting was a way to release her familial frustrations or sadness, while Amanda grew to appreciate the kind of redemptive nihilism in Brahms and the other composers Emily forced her to listen to.
“Heeeey, I’m home,” Amanda announced into the apartment. Emily continued to paint on, long sweeping strokes. Amanda turned down the sound system and Emily turned towards her.
They held eye contact for a kind of awkward pause, “Amanda, Hey, sorry, I was just … painting… you know.”
“I totally get it, girl,” Amanda tried to seem relaxed but the truth was, Emily’s behavior the night before was more than out of the ordinary. In college Amanda was the one who went way off the deep end. Even for the months that Amanda was coked out, Emily was there; she was the stable force, somehow able to withstand all the crazy of both the music and art majors. “You feelin’ okay? ‘Cause I brought some Chipotle.”
Emily sat her brushes down and took a slow deep breath before answering, “yeah, I’m actually alright,” inwardly Emily wondered if she’d eaten anything all day, “guac’ tacs?” she asked.
The girls sat down on the couch and spread their food out across the coffee table. One burrito bowl, one order of guacamole tacos and some chips. “I’m gonna grab a beer, I assume you don’t want one, Little Miss collapse in random guy’s lap,” Amanda teased making light of sincere concern.
“Ha-ha. I’ll have some of that magical kombucha, actually,” Emily sneered, if there ever was a time for creepy strands of bacteria today was the day.
“Hon,” Amanda sat back down passing the kombucha with a concerned face, “are you really okay? I haven’t seen you like that, I mean broken down and with a random guy, since sophomore year when you decided to study music instead of law and your parents lost it. What’s going on?”
Emily studied her food; there’s no way Amanda could ever understand what she was going through. Amanda was confident, she always had myriads of friends. They were close but the chasm between them was growing. “You know, it’s just been so stressful with Sarah’s wedding. First I was too fat to be her perfect bridesmaid, and now I’ve lost all this weight,” Emily pulled on her waistband, “everyone is all weird and I just let myself get too drunk. You know family stuff stresses me out.” Emily sounded annoyed, if she wanted to push Amanda away, being cold was the easiest way.
Amanda looked thoroughly unconvinced, “how did you meet him anyway, the guy you cried all over? Deaf -and- in a wheelchair?” she asked, refusing to back off.
“‘Amanda! I just, I just... I kind of met him at Java… and who cares if he’s Deaf anyway?” Emily sputtered out, trying to find some confidence.
“It’s fine honey, its fine, I’m not judging,” Amanda spoke with assurance.
“I didn’t know he used a wheelchair,” Emily managed to get out. Amanda was good at allowing pauses in conversation for Emily to get back on her feet, but Emily still felt like she was on the defensive. “When I met him at Java I knew he was Deaf, but I missed the freaking wheelchair. Because I’m so stupid!” Amanda wouldn’t understand. She was a good friend, but friends are just that, friends. Emily knew that her family wouldn’t understand. How could Amanda when she wasn’t even blood?
Amanda subtly shook her head, “Do you like him?” When Amanda was in college she fell in love with an African American guy from Baltimore and boy did her granny disapprove! But Amanda never let a little awkwardness keep her from a good thing. Her granny needed to learn that today’s black and white was a lot like yesterday’s Irish and German. Granny eventually caught on and fell in love with Amanda’s college love too, but as things worked out they broke up anyway, though Amanda came away understanding that sometimes you have to fight for what you know was right, even in your own family.
Emily chewed her guac taco like her life depended on it before answering, ”do I like him? well, he's really cute! The deafness isn’t a thing for me. Basically, he speaks a different language, that I, you know, I can deal with. I… I don’t know about the chair.” Emily’s words ground to a halt. “I guess I don’t care about it,” Emily knew that was the politically correct thing to say but, “ugh! Amanda! I don’t effing know. Can we let it go?”
“Sure hon, sure. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
Wednesday rolled around and Emily found herself cautiously optimistic. Tonight was her weekly ASL class and as a group they were attending a Deaf poetry slam in a small bar. Her teacher explained that as intermediate students it was important for them to spend some time with native signers in the Deaf community. Dr. Stevens instructed everyone to meet at the bar instead of class and no one was allowed to speak all evening. Dr. Stevens was not deaf himself but his parents were and the position of interpreting and teaching came naturally for him.
Emily was running late as usual and slipped into the bar hoping her tardiness would go unnoticed. Of course, it didn’t. She’d expected everyone to be facing the front, watching ASL stories. Instead, everyone was sitting around signing and enjoying drinks. Dr. Stevens waved her over and Emily found a spot with most of her classmates. It was silly but they all sat around, practically sitting on their hands looking nervous. Emily could tell most of them were secretly hoping that no one tried to talking to them,they’d been studying for 6 months already, she didn’t understand why they were so nervous. Emily lifted her eyes and glanced around the room. It felt strange to be in a bar full of people yet was so quiet. She scanned the conversations, it was fascinating to be able to follow conversations from across the room. As she was looked around Emily noticed that Caleb was here too. He didn’t seem like the poetry type to her but maybe it was a Deaf community kind of thing. Caleb glanced her way giving a head nod then went back to his conversation. Emily blushed furiously, the full embarrassment of the other night rushing back. Since none of her classmates were willing to sign, barely even among themselves, she watched Caleb’s conversation with a pretty blonde girl. His hands moved fluidly, the octopus tattoo on his arm seeming alive as he signed. He was sitting in the same wheelchair as the other night. He had on dark wash jeans with the bottoms cuffed and tan leather chukkas with bright blue laces and a faded black t-shirt that looked like it had espresso machine parts on the front. She didn’t want to stare but it was hard to look away. His hands looked so large and strong though he sat a little slouched and she noticed that his middle was definitely soft. It was hard to see from where she was sitting but it seemed like his chest should be more muscled to match his shoulders and forearms. Caleb had to feel her eyes on him, he shifted in his chair, lifting his bottom by pressing his hands on the wheels and looked back at Emily. This time she smiled. The lights flashed and the poetry reading began.
Emily had been studying ASL furiously in class and online, she was able to make out some of the poetry and was deeply moved by it. If she wasn’t able to make out every sign she could still feel the pain and joy punctuated in the hands of each signer. ASL was expressive and beautiful.
Caleb glanced back towards Emily, he studied her. She didn’t seem like the kind of girl who wore a lot of make up, she looked beautiful, but unassuming. And he thought that it looked like she was having a hard time following some of the poetry. Fran, a friend of his, was sharing a poem about the loneliness of being Deaf in a hearing family. Caleb couldn’t help himself. He released his breaks and wheeled to where Emily was sitting. “Hey, how are you liking tonight?” he signed in a way that was like a whisper.
“I love it,” she signed enthusiastically but then paused, “but, I’m not sure I’m following everything she’s sharing.”
Caleb nodded and then watched as Fran signed. He signed it back to Emily in a more basic way, “she’s talking about how it feels to be Deaf in a family of hearing people who refuse to learn ASL. She feels like a towel that’s been wrung out, and tossed aside. Her family doesn’t communicate with her, so she feels like they take what they need from her and hang her out to dry.”
Emily shuddered like she was shaking off bad news. “I understand that.” She was thankful to have Caleb sitting with her to help. “Are you going to share?” she asked with a glint of hope in her eyes.
He laughed, “oh no, I don’t do the “poetry” thing. But these people are my family. I come to support everyone.” He gestured broadly, including everyone.
Caleb sat with Emily for the rest of the poetry slam and translated the poems into simpler ASL when she needed. She seemed different than a typical hearing girl, and he couldn’t help but lose himself in her smile.
Once the poetry sharing was over Emily stood up, starting to gather her things to head out, though it looked like the event wasn’t thinning out at all. She felt a tap on her arm and saw Caleb sitting with an easy smile on his face. “I know you’re a lightweight but you can’t really be leaving already.”
Emily laughed, “I didn’t realize these events went on forever.”
“Well, could I get you a gin drink? If I remember correctly those are your favorite right?” He teased her. This time she really laughed and pushed him gently on his shoulder shaking her head. Touching him made her fingers feel like electrical current was running through of them. “Are you a little scared of all the Deafies?” he questioned looking up at her.
She realized that he was probably going to have a neck ache from looking up at her so she grabbed her chair and sat back down to answer. “I’m going to be honest. Deafies are pretty blunt, right?” He nodded. “I’m embarrassed about Friday night.” She paused and took a breath. “I’m not that girl. I don’t get drunk and make an idiot of myself.” She made the sign for idiot, basically a peace sign on her forehead, but she slapped herself hard. Caleb visibly winced and grabbed her offending hand for a second.
“I told you at CAVA, it’s fine. We’ve all been there,” he let go of her hand and shifted in his chair, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wound up in a guys lap, crying.” For a second it looked like she believed him before he signed “I’m kidding! Kidding. But you’re welcome to my lap anytime.” Before they could take that line of conversation any further a heavy set African American man came up slapped him on the back.
Emily seriously wondered if it was good to hit someone so hard who was obviously disabled.
“What’s going on! I haven’t seen you in ages!” the enthusiastic man pulled Caleb into a hug lifting him out of his chair a little.
“Fucking work is whats been going on!” he signed with disgust, like it was no big thing that a huge man just picked him up into a bear hug and sat him back down unceremoniously.
Caleb’s friend seemed to realize in that moment that Emily was sitting there too and signed, “who’s the pretty girl?” which garnered another slap on the back while Emily looked at her feet trying not to feel uncomfortable.
“This is my friend Emily. She’s learning ASL with Tom Stevens, and I think she loves gin,” he couldn’t help but tease her, smiling at her reaction to his introduction.
“Cool, nice to meet you. I’m Jayson. I’ve been friends with this guy since fourth grade.” Emily sensed there was a story to go along with that but she didn’t get a chance to ask before Jayson was already signing again, “so, why are you learning ASL? Future interpreter or are you doing it for him?” he pointed to Caleb and batted his eyelashes dramatically. Now it was Caleb’s turn to look uncomfortable.
Emily paused thoughtfully, “well, I need professional development credits to keep my teacher’s certification. Sign language classes count for that. And it’s a beautiful language.” It was a vanilla answer but they accepted it. Emily had been getting better at sign language every day but as Caleb and Jayson started to talk with each other she found it hard to keep up. She looked around the room and started feeling alone, the signs swirling together into a mass of confusion. The deep pit she’d been trying to fill started to open back up in her chest. -- You’re alone. You’ll never be good enough to fit in here. You’ve never been good at anything.-- Angry thoughts swirled as her chest grew tight. She was drawn out of the loop when Caleb rested his large hand on her forearm, drawing her back. He didn’t pull away and he didn’t say anything but it was clear in his face that he noticed the change in her.
He signed with one hand, “We were talking about movies. Obviously, I’m a big fan of Clash of the Titans, the original one. What about you?” He wanted to bring her back into the conversation and the vice in her chest loosened just a little as she looked into his deep green eyes.
“You know, I haven’t seen that.”
Caleb actually used his voice and signed at the same time, “no way!” With just those two words Emily could tell that he didn’t talk much. The words sounded rounded and nasally. She knew that some Deaf people were raised orally, where speaking and lipreading were a high priority, apparently that wasn’t the case for him. She was curious what his family was like. It seemed like he and Jamal were close, and Jamal was fluent in ASL too.
“You haven’t seen Clash of the Titans?” Jayson shook his head and kept signing, “you’ve seen his tattoo right? I’m fairly sure this guy has broken up with girls over their opinion on that movie.” This time Caleb hit his friend on the shoulder with a surprising amount of force.
Emily couldn’t help but release a breath of laughter, “I really love how blunt Deaf people are.”
“Yeah, well, he’s a special case I think,” Caleb glared at Jayson with a glint of mischief in his eyes.
Emily could picture the two of them as little boys rough housing and getting into all sorts of trouble.
“I can take a hint, I’ll catch you later man,” he pulled Caleb in another hug, this one not quite as rough. “Nice meeting you,” he nodded at Emily and easily slipped into another conversation. It seemed to Emily like everyone knew everyone here.
Just when Emily thought maybe they’d get more time alone a woman with a short gray bob and wire rimmed glasses stepped in and leaned down to give him a hug. Emily was starting to wonder what it would feel like to be in his strong arms again.
The woman stood back up and regarded Caleb warmly. “How are you?” she signed with sincerity.
“I’m good. Honestly, good. Work is work, but you know how it is.”
She nodded, she was Deaf too and had dealt with discrimination in the workplace, “your dad was telling me you’ve been working around the clock, you know how they worry. You’ve got to call your mom more often.”
Caleb groaned inwardly. Family was embarrassing. Rather than letting her go on anymore he took the chance to introduce Emily, “Aunt Clair this is Emily. She’s an ASL student.”
Emily felt a bit put out by the constant introduction as an ASL student, but at least it gave her an excuse to sign poorly. She nodded hello. Aunt Clair didn’t look impressed.
“And actually, we were just heading out,” Caleb signed with finality.
“We are? I mean, yeah, we are. Nice meeting you.” Emily was surprised by the quick exit, but tried to take it in stride.
Caleb lead them out of the bar and onto the sidewalk out front. It was around nine o’clock but the sun was still on the horizon. Something about the humid air of summer and late nights made Caleb feel like he should be on vacation. Emily stood in front of him awkwardly.
“Thanks for helping me escape my Aunt. My whole family has no filter on what comes out of their mouths or hands.”
“Glad I could rescue you this time around,” she shuffled her feet, “it seems nice having family who care about you so much. Are your parents Deaf too?”
“No, I’m the only Deafie in the family except for my aunt. My grandparents didn’t know how to handle her deafness so they pushed her to speak and lip read. She always felt out of place until she was in college and got involved with the Deaf community. My parents were actually living in Palestine when I was born. After they found out I was deaf my aunt practically begged them to come back to the states. She didn’t want me to feel the isolation that she did. I’m actually very thankful for that. My whole family signs too. Its kind of a rare thing.”
“Wow, that's really cool. P-a-l-e-s-t-i-n-e?” she finger spelled back for clarification, he was signing slowly, but she was nowhere near fluent.
“Yeah,” he nodded and looked at her thoughtfully, “Its not that late, my apartment is only about 10 minutes from here. Do you wanna come over for a little?” he signed a little faster than before, “I’ll tell you more about my weird family and we can watch Clash of the Titans?” He lifted his butt up in his chair and shifted his weight a little, it was something he did more often when he felt nervous, it wasn’t like he could tap his feet anymore. He watched Emily’s face, most hearing girls were pretty easy to read but Emily was like an open book. She actually looked surprised but in the good kind of way and she was trying to hide it.
“I’d love that!” “
“Cool. Hand me your phone, I’ll add my number. You can follow me or text if you get lost. I’m at 410 Harris Street.”
-----She walked beside him to the parking lot and got in her car as he wheeled up to his. Caleb had been a para for only a year and a half. He was young and strong which helped his recovery immensely, but he was still very self conscious about his paralyzed body, especially when he was transferring into a car, there was just so much bending and pulling. He opened his door and put the brakes on his chair, he figured that Emily was probably watching. He pulled his legs off the footplate setting one on the ground and other in the car. Then he slid to the edge of his seat and used his arms to swing his butt into the car. After his legs were pulled in and adjusted he popped the wheels off of his chair while grabbing the steering wheel for balance. It took him a minute or two to get everything apart and into his car. Finally he opened the window and waved for Emily to follow him but self doubt began to settle in like fog. He drove slowly making sure she was following. What was he thinking? He couldn’t help but feel his heart pulling him to Emily but he also couldn’t imagine what it would even look like being with a girl again...