The hardest part of being deaf?
My boss asks me to run an errand across campus. It’s a glorious day—the sun is shining, the tank is clean—so I eagerly accept this mission. Palming the folder she hands me, I tuck it under my arm, scurry down the hall, and unlock my bike from its closet in the stairwell. Not moments later I am zooming through the windless haze of the coming summer, sweat already prickling beneath the loose curls at my ears. It’s May but it feels like July, and because today is the last day of exams the sidewalks are bereft, the quads almost bare. Soon even the buildings will be empty as the season closes its dry, smoldery fist over the university, and there will be no one left to watch when I sprawl on the grass at lunchtime, palms up, shoes off.
I deliver the folder. I take my time pedaling back toward my office, and I cut behind the cafeteria in hopes of seeing the last of the azaleas in bloom. Well, that and sometimes representatives from local businesses give out free subs there, and I’m never one to turn down food if I don’t have to pay for it. I round the cafeteria’s corner just in time to see a gal sitting at a table sign, “So glad it’s over!”
There are five others at the table excluding her, three ladies and two guys. One of said guys makes a lucky motion and signs back to the first girl, “I have BIO later. Didn’t study for it.” The shade from the trees above makes inkblot patterns on his shirt.
I don’t recognize him, the girl—any of them. Slowly I pedal toward them, and as I come abreast of them I happen to catch the BIO guy’s eye. I flap my hand at my temple: “Hey! Hey!” He points at me. Everyone else at the table turns to look, and I brake, brace my foot against the bricks, and sign to them all, “Is this a meet-up? Mind if I—”
The girl whose exam is apparently finished beams all over her freckled face and beckons for me to come closer. Across the table and from the other kids’ hands questions flurry: “Who is that? Do you know her? Who is that? Who is that?”
Keen to chat, I hop off my bike and walk to the table. BIO guy is already scooting over to make room for me, and he fires a question off with a grin: “What’s your name?”
At the same time the freckled gal asks, “Are you a student?”
I start, “I’m—” and am interrupted by the group’s second guy slamming his fist down against the table.
He’s wearing a ring. Fraternity, class, wedding: I don’t know. But it makes a distinct noise, a screechy thump, and I jump and jerk backward a little bit. The tips of his ears are very red as he leans out of the shade toward me. Angry, sunburned—again, I just don’t know. His eyebrows sketch harsh commas on his forehead.
“Hearing or deaf?” he demands, his gestures sharp. When he draws his finger up his cheek I’m reminded of someone smearing war paint there.
I know why they’ve clustered in the shade. It’s baking on the bricks—I’m sweating, my shirt stuck on my shoulders, the nape of my neck wet. But I drop my head and turn it aside, pulling away damp curls to showcase my sound processor. Honestly I inform him, “Hard of hearing.”
It gets quiet. You can think that’s a funny thing to say, but it’s true: an ASL conversation might be carried out in silence, sure, but it’s almost never quiet. Hands move and arms twist and faces twitch and signs, they speak, they shout, they yell—they sing, even.
This time, though—wow, it really does. It gets so, so quiet. Everyone at the table freezes. The freckled girl and the BIO dude fall still; the three ladies I haven’t exchanged words with at all yet might as well constitute stone.
Suddenly the other guy leans toward me the tiniest bit more. He must be sunburned, I realize, because I’m looking down at him and I can see the flush of crimson sweeping along the back of his neck. Like wings.
“Real deaf people only,” he signs. He jabs his index finger at my bike, flicks it—get lost—and turns away from me.
I stare at him: at the freckled girl and the BIO guy and the rest of the table. They look sheepish, maybe even horrified—but no one contradicts what’s been said. No one tells me to stay. Aggressive warmth crawls up my chest, my throat, trebles at the corners of my eyes and I love summer, love broiling in the sun and sweating and watching drizzle steam on the sidewalks of campus, but the heat of my own shame is too much even for me and I sign back, small, “Sorry. Really sorry.”
Climbing back on my bike, I get away from them as fast as I can. In the deserted quad the birds are singing. I have never felt so guilty knowing it.
The hardest part of being deaf is not being deaf enough.