The coffee shop was busy today. Nearly every table was cluttered with laptops and stacks of books. Caleb considered himself lucky to have nestled into a two person table in the far right corner of the shop, prime real estate. There were several long “community” tables, but these were best to be avoided, as sitting there was an open invitation to annoyance.
Taking a long drink from his coffee he opened his laptop and logged onto work. This morning was his weekly call with the new project manager Frank. This guy -- what a headache. Caleb spent more time documenting his work than actually working.
He opened up his Video Relay Service (VRS) app and clicked on his boss’ name. Caleb’s stomach churned. Frank was a true idiot and Caleb wasn’t sure if Frank thought that he was a bad programmer because he was Deaf or if Frank was just out to get him. The friendly interpreter appeared on the screen signing “Hello.” “Good morning.” Caleb signed back, glad his boss couldn’t see his grimace. When Frank insisted they have weekly video chats every Thursday to “ensure maximum productivity and accountability” Caleb didn’t realize it meant an hour long call demeaning him and criticizing his work. At first, Frank wanted a regular Skype call where they could talk over chat so Frank could actually see him face to face - bright and early! But, Frank kept speaking rather than typing out his questions while expecting Caleb to read his lips over the often blurry connection. Finally, Frank allowed Caleb to use a VRS, but he didn’t like it. Caleb had been telecommuting for years and was one of the company’s brightest coders. This remedial treatment was grating on his last nerve.
One hour and exactly 7 minutes later Caleb’s head was pounding and he could feel every angry heartbeat in his fingers. After explaining the how and why of every code change he had submitted he was asked to rewrite half of it. “Re-write 3,000 lines of code!?” Caleb kept playing it through his head. He wondered if the interpreter spoke what he was saying as angrily as he was signing it.
Just as Caleb was finishing his call a young woman practically pranced into the coffee shop. “Hey Jess!” she chirped at the barista while thinking in her head, “walk happy, think happy, be happy.” “Hi, Emily. What can I get for you?” the girl behind the counter droned. “Geez, more bitter than the coffee,” Emily thought. Toning down her smile just a bit she ordered a cortado and sparkling water. As she walked to the end of the bar to wait for her drink she saw a guy about her age sitting in the corner signing animatedly at his Macbook. She was entranced. Emily had been taking sign language classes at the university and was itching for an opportunity to try out her skills. “Holy cow he’s hot.” Emily blushed as she quietly watched the guy’s curly milk chocolate brown hair move as he signed. “And wow... is he mad?” She grabbed her drink on its little wooden tray and sat down at the end of the long community table. “Nice view from here,” she thought with a small smile.
The cortado was perfect - an almost 50/50 balance of steamed whole milk and a smooth shot of espresso. The hot guy seemed to be done with his call, he was raking his hands through those dark curls and staring down at the tabletop. Maybe it was the espresso, maybe it was just Emily’s effort to be in a good mood, but she decided to go over and say hi. He was either deaf or talking with someone who was, he was certainly fluent in ASL, something Emily hoped she would be too one day.
---Caleb was pulling his hands through his hair, what he really wanted to do was bash his head off of the table. “Fucking Frank.” But when he looked up there was a young woman sitting across from him. “Hi,” he read on her lips. Not at all in the mood for a tiring conversation with a clueless hearie he just shook his head and pointed from his ear to mouth while mouthing, “Deaf.” Instead of the usual reaction, where he would read a long line of “Oh! I’m so sorry,” the girl’s dark brown eyes glimmered and a huge smile broke out across her face. “My name E-M-I-L-Y. Your name, what?” Her fingerspelling was slow and deliberate. “My name C-A-L-E-B,” he answered and then held his right hand in the shape of a C and brushed it over the top of his left forearm. “Your name sign is church?” Emily blurted out. Caleb shook his head, annoyed, “no, not church,” he tapped his right hand in the shape of a C on top of his left wrist and shook his head. “C-O-M-P-U-T-E-R” he finger spelled slowly and signed a C in a repeated sweeping motion over his left arm, then pointed at his laptop with his eyebrows raised. “Oh! Yes, I understand.” Emily signed and sat back with a smile on her face. Caleb studied her, his bad mood almost softening when he saw that Frank was messaging him on chat. “Sorry, I can’t talk. Working now.” He tried to look contrite but his annoyance at rewriting all of that code made it difficult to think about anything else. His weekend was going to be eaten up by work - again. “Oh, okay. Sorry. Nice to meet you, Caleb.” She signed trying to make his name sign like he did. She waved and took her empty drinks back up to the coffee bar and headed out.
“Emily! Stop fidgeting so damn much. I need to bring the dress in, not to make you into a human pin cushion! There’s only 3 weeks until your sister’s wedding and you had to go and lose 20 pounds. This dress is hanging off of you. I mean, you look great... but timing!” Shanyn was bossy but well meaning. She and Emily worked together at Franklin Elementary and apparently was a great seamstress, even if a little rough in the process. “I’m sorry Shan, I’ve been under a lot of stress. And when I’m stressed food just doesn’t taste as good!” “Honey, food tastes all the better when I’m under some stress. What's got you all worked up anyways? Is Principal Jones still on you about those little angels singing too many Christmas songs at the winter concert? ‘Cause, that was months ago,” Shanyn asked pulling back from her work on the dress to look Emily in the eye. “No, no. Its not that. Just a lot going on I guess,” her eyes darkened as she mumbled, “a lot I don’t want to think about.” Emily was the music teacher for the school; she loved her job and all of the children she worked with. She also took it to heart when a parent or administrator criticized her. “Girl, what you need is a night out! Me an’ Tommy are going out on Friday to that new club… CAVA, I think. He’s bringing some friends and some of the other teachers are coming along. Its summer. Now is the time to let loose!”
Emily groaned, “maybe you’re right. Doesn’t the bible say ‘eat drink and be merry because tomorrow we die anyway’?” Shanyn dropped her hands and gawked at her friend. “Mmmhmm, that’s it. You’re coming out with us.”
---After she was finished being pinned up and bossed around, Emily headed back to her apartment. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen with a big gas stove, and light gray walls covered in art from local artists plus a few paintings the girls had made on “painting nights.” It looked lived in, bright, and happy -- something Emily hadn’t felt since a visit to her doctor after Christmas. She shared the apartment with Amanda, a friend from college. After graduating it just made sense to move into the hipster part of town together and split rent.
Emily threw her keys in the green mason jar by the door, dropped her bag on the couch and headed into the kitchen. She pulled a cold bottle of water from the fridge and closed her eyes as the icy water trickled all the way down into her stomach. “What’s up Em?” Emily’s eyes flew open, “Hey, I didn’t hear you come in, ninja,” she tried to laugh. That had been happening more often these days. “Me? A ninja? Come on now, you’re too distracted. You met a guy didn’t you!” Amanda said laughing and pushing Emily out of the way so she could grab a drink from the fridge. “Gross, Amanda, no one should drink anything with that much slime in it.” Emily’s roommate was on a new health kick, home brewed kombucha. Sure, it was supposed cure everything that ails but Emily just couldn’t bring herself to drink the brown, bubbling liquid with strands of bacteria drifting through it. “Whatever, I’m going for a run. Enjoy your magic elixir,” Emily headed back to her room to change into running clothes so she could clear her head while Amanda yelled after her, “you did meet a guy! You’re gonna have to tell me about him sooner or later!”
---Caleb had been working for the last 8 hours in the coffee shop only stopping to get a refill or use the bathroom. He noticed his phone buzzing and MacBook blinking with an incoming FaceTime call. Mom - iPhone. He scrubbed his hands over his face and accepted the call on his laptop. It was easier than trying to hold the phone one handed and sign. “Hi Mom.” “Caleb!” she squinted as if she was studying his surroundings, “are you still sitting in that coffee shop? Its not good for you to work so long without moving around.” His mother was nothing if not protective of her son. He watched her turn her face from the screen, probably yelling to tell his dad. “Mom, I’m fine. Really,” he signed forcefully pulling his pointer finger out from his mouth and downward. “You know things at work are crazy right now.” “But Caleb, you’re coming to dinner tonight aren’t you? Jamal is coming too. Your brother misses you.” Shit, family dinner night, Caleb remembered, running his hands through his thick hair again. “I’m sorry Mom, there’s no way I can come. I have to re-write a lot of code and it’s going to take all weekend,” dragging out the sign for all. “My baby boy, no time for his mama. You take care of yourself! And get something good to eat for dinner. I don’t want you wasting away at that computer!” “Love you too, Mom.” And he slammed the laptop shut, garnering a few startled looks from around the coffee shop. It wasn’t that he didn’t want a delicious family dinner, and a part of him understood his mother’s protectiveness about him, but he wasn’t about to lose a great job because of one asshole project manager. He’d grab some fast food for dinner and keep working till he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
Caleb set three alarms for Friday morning. Three! Yet here it was 10 am, his iPhone flashing with a VRS call from Frank, and Caleb barely awake. He grabbed his phone held it out so he could see it and answered, “Hello.” “Caleb, this is Frank, why aren’t you logged into work? There's an issue with billing that needs addressed immediately. We’ve been trying to get in touch with you for an hour.” Caleb pushed himself up a little higher in bed. “Frank, I’ve been having internet problems all morning. I’m sorry. It should be resolved now.” Good thing the VRS interpreters don’t tell on you for obviously lying in bed. “Well it better be, or you’ll need to start coming into the office instead of working from home. I don’t think most people should work from home anyway!” “All right Frank, I’ll get right on it.” Caleb was sure he would have been bright eyed and ready to program if he hadn’t been up till 3am re-writing perfectly good code.
Five o’clock rolled around and most of the company had logged off to enjoy the weekend. Worker-bee Caleb was trying to keep pushing through brain fog when his Mac lit up with a FaceTime call, this one from Jamal. “Hey Jamal!” Caleb signed, genuinely happy to see his brother’s face. “Bro, good to see you’re still alive. The way Mom talks you’d think you’re working in a dungeon day and night.” Caleb let out of rough laugh, the first in a few days. It was good to talk with his brother. Jamal continued, “so listen, I know you have all the work in the world to do, but you have to come out with me tonight.” Caleb grumbled something indiscernible and started shaking his head, lifting his hand to sign no, but his brother continued on anyway. “We’re going to this new place called CAVA. I heard the music is crazy loud,” he finished with a grin. “I’ll pick you up at 8. No arguing!” “O.K. You win. I need a break anyway.” “Mama will be so happy I’m getting you out.”---
Because it was summer a few of the teachers had a tradition of dyeing their hair crazy colors to celebrate their freedom. Emily considered herself too reserved for that but was somehow convinced to put a bright teal streak in her long espresso brown hair. She stared at herself in the mirror. “I look ridiculous,” she thought. Amanda strutted into her room wearing a neon yellow mini dress, before Emily could even process how truly ridiculous her friend looked Amanda sat down on her bed. “What are you wearing tonight? I know this is kinda bright but I just love this color. And I really think it contrasts with my red hair, don’t you?” Amanda worked at a small art gallery down the street, she could pull of crazy looks. “You look beautiful Amanda. Now what the heck am I going to wear?”
Caleb had once again found himself a seat against the wall. From there he felt safe and could see most of the club. Caleb, Jamal, and a bunch of Jamal’s friends from the school he worked at were sitting around a large round table. Caleb took a long draw from his beer. Sometimes he found it hard to be around a large group who didn’t sign but tonight he was happy to feel the bass in his chest and relax. Besides, his brother never let him feel too left out, always doing his best to sign what others were saying and interpret what Caleb had to share.
They’d been eating tapas and sitting around for about an hour when Caleb noticed a few of his brother’s friends turn towards the door. “More teachers,” he guessed by the pops of brightly colored hair. As the shuffled in around the table Caleb caught Emily’s eye. “That's the same girl from Java.” She had her hair down, but it looked like she curled it a little. She was wearing dark skinny jeans, black lace up boots half way up her calves and a low cut emerald green tank top. Jamal smacked him a little hard on the arm to grab his attention, signing as he spoke, “Shanyn and Tommy, Emily and Amanda, this is my brother Caleb. Don’t let his good looks fool you, he’s really a cloistered monk.” Caleb punched his brother in the arm and nodded hello to everyone but locked eyes with Emily. “Caleb,” she signed with a smile. “Like a C-O-M-P-U-T-E-R.” She was practically grinning now. Jamal interrupted looking puzzled, “you two know each other?” Caleb signed something back quickly that Emily didn’t get. She averted her eyes feeling embarrassed and grabbed Amanda to go get a drink.---
“That's him! That’s the guy who had you all distracted the other day!” Amanda squealed waving her hands around wildly, glancing back over her shoulder catching Caleb’s eye. “Stop it Amanda, don’t look!” She grabbed her friend’s hand and unconsciously huddled down. “Deaf people are really good at paying attention to their surroundings and knowing when people are looking at them! And yeah, well, I mean, I only talked to him to a minute or two at Java. He was busy. I think he was pretty annoyed with me anyway.” Just then Shanyn came up behind them. “Honey, I saw that. The way you were lookin’ at him. I haven’t seen you smile so big in a long time!” Amanda burst out laughing and passed drinks to her girlfriends. “Ladies, tonight we take the path less traveled, tonight, we drink overpriced gin drinks made by bartenders in bow ties! Cheers!”
Emily sat quietly at the table. She drank her first drink, then her second, and was working on her third in no time. Gin cut with lime and simple syrup. Dangerous indeed. As she relaxed a little more with each drink Emily took some time to take in all of Caleb. His dark hair looked less ruffled today, curling around his ears. He had on a gray button down shirt which made his olive skin seem darker. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows revealing some tattoos. That kind of surprised Emily, a Deaf computer guy with tatts. He had broad shoulders, even under his shirt she could see some muscle definition. She licked her lips. He glanced up making eye contact just as she was rolling her bottom lip between her teeth. His eyes were a deep green but he seemed almost uncomfortable and leaned back in his seat, not breaking eye contact until some blonde haired guy in a chambray shirt and oxford dress shoes approached Emily. She pulled her eyes away from Caleb to answer the man who was trying to ask her to dance, or maybe ask if she wanted another drink. “I’m sorry. I can’t hear you, it’s too loud in here,” she shouted at him. He looked a little put off but tried again, speaking really slowly, Caleb watched from across the table. “Want - to - dance - with - me ? You’re - really - pretty,” basic white guy blared at her. Caleb read what he could from across the table and felt his jaw clench, but why should he care who some hearing girl he doesn’t even know dances with? “Oh, thanks, but… I’m not in a dancing mood tonight,” she turned away, back to her tasty, tasty gin drink. By now most of the group was up dancing to the electronic music. Caleb looked at Emily again. “Come on and sit down over here,” he motioned for her to come to his end of the table. “O.K.” Emily nodded and held his gaze until she sat across from him.----
“I’m sorry I was so rude to you in the coffee shop yesterday. I’m not normally an asshole,” Caleb was signing slowly but Emily had only been studying ASL for about 6 months. He tilted his head watching her try to figure out what he had signed and tried again, “I’m sorry about yesterday at Java.” “Oh, thanks. I mean, it’s okay,” she fumbled half signing and speaking. Good grief why was she acting like such a ditz with him? “Do you read lips?” Emily watched Caleb’s jaw twitch just a little bit. “No. You should try it sometime.” “Okay, wrong question,” she thought. She turned and started digging through her handbag. “Look!” she signed excitedly holding up paper and pen. He smiled back. Well that’s a good sign.
She scribbled hastily on the notepad.
E: I don’t mean to be annoying. I’ve been studying ASL at the community college and I got excited yesterday that I might be able to sign with someone.
Caleb read what she wrote and looked like he’d been punched in the stomach, the air deflating out of him. His eyes softened.
C: You’re not annoying.
He stopped writing and showed her what he’d written.
C: I was an asshole. Things at work suck right now. I’ve been in a bad mood for a month, I think.
Emily smiled slowly, nodding.
E: I’ve been in a bad mood for 6 months, so I can let it slide.
“Why?” Caleb asked with his eyebrows furrowed down. He studied her body language. She looked terribly uncomfortable.
E: I really love my job and I’m afraid things are changing in my life that might affect it.
She looked like she was about to cry. Caleb flagged down a waitress and then pointed to his beer and Emily’s cocktail. The waitress seemed to understand and nodded heading back to the bar. “I’m sorry,” he signed looking into the dark pools of her eyes. She shook her head like she was trying to shake off the sadness. “It's O.K. Tonight is for gin and dancing. True?” Caleb nodded in agreement.
E: So can you tell me the story of these tattoos? I didn’t expect a computer geek to be such a bad ass.
Caleb grabbed at his chest in mock hurt.
C: That's why I have them. Because I’m not just a Deaf computer guy. I am a bad ass.
He underlined the words and cocked an eyebrow up with a smirk.
E: Well, they do make you seem dangerous. And hot.
Caleb was looking at the paper while she wrote and as she started scratching out the “hot” comment. Caleb laughed and it took her breath away. It was loud and full. It caught her off guard. And it made her laugh right along with him. She looked up at him from under her eyelashes.
E: I think this gin may be more dangerous than you.
“Perfect timing,” Caleb pointed at the waitress bringing their drinks.
C: So, my biggest tattoo is of the Kraken.
He pulled his sleeve further back and showed her how the giant octopus started around his elbow while the tentacles covered his forearm and bicep. Some of them were tangled around a wrecked ship.
“Its beautiful,” Emily reached out and ran her fingers along the faded purple tentacle holding the ship. It seemed like Caleb was holding his breath as she touched him. She turned his arm over and pointed at a small tattoo that seemed out of place in the sea of monster and wreckage. “What about this?” She touched what looked like an old desktop computer. That laugh again. Her heart stilled. He pulled his arm back and grabbed the notebook.
C: See, that one ruins all my street cred.
He looked up at her, smiling broadly, before continuing.
C: It was my first tattoo. I was a freshman in college, majoring in computer science and it seemed nostalgic. But now, it’s like having an ex girlfriend’s name on my arm.
E: That’s how you think of girlfriends, like out of date electronics? If you dated me would I be like an iPhone or an android?
Emily was smiling. Caleb just shook his head and took another drink of his beer.
C: I’m really glad I came out tonight.
“Me too... We should dance,” Emily was feeling emboldened. Caleb stared down into his beer bottle for a second. Emily started signing again, “I know you can’t hear it, but you can feel it can’t you?” She reached across the table and touched her middle finger to his chest, like the sign for feeling. Caleb started to reach for the notebook but Emily took a big gulp from her drink, stood up and grabbed Caleb’s hands. “Come on,” she didn’t bother signing. As she started to tug his hands she realized he wasn’t standing up at all. In fact he was sitting in a wheelchair. “Oh my gosh.” Apparently gin also caused her to lose all tact.----
“Dammit!” was all Caleb could think as she dropped his hands and swore. He should have said something, or not said anything to her in the first place. How did she not notice the wheelchair? It was dark here, but not in the coffee shop, granted he was backed into the corner. She must have been really oblivious. “I’m sorry,” he read on her lips, followed by her signing it and sitting back down. She grabbed the notebook.
E: I’m an idiot. I didn’t know. She stopped writing and looked up at the ceiling as if searching for help.
“You’re fine," he signed.
C: I should have mentioned it somewhere in the “I am a bad ass” part of the conversation that I meant bad ass paraplegic.
He smiled tightly.---
Now that he was sitting out from behind the table Emily took a second to really look at him, as the shock was wearing off. It’s no wonder his arms looked so defined, he pushed himself around all day. And this didn’t appear to be a hospital loaner wheelchair. It was black with a brushed metal frame. Her eyes trailed down his body. He had a little bit of a stomach, which seemed weird for someone so otherwise in shape. His legs leaned off to the right, his left foot off kilter on the footplate, like it was about to slip off. Caleb watched her eyes travel down to his legs. He quickly grabbed his leg under the knee and lifted it up, setting it straight on the footplate. Then he pushed himself up with his hands, lifting his butt off of the chair and sitting himself back so his legs weren’t flopped over, re-positioning them with his hands. All of a sudden, his legs weren’t the only thing that seemed to be flopping around. Those 4 drinks hit Emily at the same time and she started to lean forward out of her seat like she was about to pass out. Caleb pushed himself closer and lifted her face to his. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were such a light weight.” He tried to smile, hoping she understood his signs. “I’m O.K. I think I just need water and outside.” Emily stood up and grabbed onto the table. She wondered how she had gotten so drunk. “This is what happens when you bottle everything up inside”, she berated herself. “What was that?” Caleb had a really hard time reading lips. She just shook her head, “nothing.” Being told that someone had said nothing when they clearly said something but were too lazy to interpret it was huge pet peeve of his but Emily looked like she was about to fall over. She stared down at him almost panicked and signed “sick.” Caleb didn’t waste any more time, he grabbed her hand and tugged, pulling her onto his lap. She might have been put off by the chair but seemed happy enough to have a ride out of the bar.
When they got outside he assumed she would jump off of his lap and onto the bench but she didn’t. Instead, she nestled her face into his chest. He her breathing felt short and jagged. He pulled back to look at her, “are you crying?” He wiped a tear from her cheek, “it’s O.K. You’ll be fine.” She just shook her head and buried herself back into his chest while he gently stroked her hair.
Not long after they’d been sitting outside of the club Jamal came out. He seemed to be looking around almost in a panic until he saw Caleb sitting out front with a girl in his lap. “What’s this? Wait, Emily? Is she okay?” Jamal went from concern about his brother to Emily pretty quickly. “I think she’s okay, just drunk. Who did she come with?” Caleb’s signing stirred Emily back to reality. “Oh, oh, my. I’m sorry. I’m a mess,” there she went into broken signing again. She tried to stand up but Caleb held her to his lap. Jamal signed and spoke, “you and Amanda are roommates right? I’ll go get her for you, okay?” Emily nodded, relaxing back onto Caleb’s warm but bony legs.
Soon Amanda showed up outside. She saw at Emily cuddled up on Caleb’s lap and was startled by the wheelchair. “Emily! What the hell?! Jamal say’s you’re a mess.” She tried to remember some of the signs Emily had taught her. “I’m sorry… my friend… is drunk.” Hey, maybe what they say about foreign languages being easier when you’ve had a few drinks was true. Caleb shook his head and mouthed, “it’s O.K.” Just then their Uber ride pulled up. Jamal helped Emily up and into the car. “Take good care of her Amanda!” he looked back at Caleb his eyes wide and mouth open “wow! I did not see that coming. What happened?” Caleb just shrugged, “I really don’t know.”