DSQ > Summer 2007, Volume 27, No.3

As I float above the cadre of surgeons and their assistants, all scrubbed and masked, standing in a circle around my anaesthetized body, I am surprised by my complete lack of emotion over what I am seeing, even when they shave and begin sawing into the thick bone of my skull, right behind my left ear. I am shocked by my own reaction because I hate horror movies with their graphic mutilations of the human body, up close, are shown, often coupled with the screaming distortions of pain.

When, after my last hearing test, my audiologist said that I'd be an excellent candidate for a cochlear implant operation, my immediate thought was, "No, thanks." I knew how much the deaf community had protested the ethical aspects of this operation, especially when the FDA had approved it so hastily, not even waiting out its mandatory ten-year period of testing before allowing deaf babies two years old or above to wear them; last I had heard, the FDA began allowing babies at the age of six months to be implanted. I couldn't blame the deaf community's intense alarm, for such technological advances could mean the eventual eradication of deafness, and the deaf community, itself. Besides, in many cases, the operation isn't always guaranteed to work despite the hype.

I knew sign language, but not very well; some of my deaf and hard-of-hearing friends had demanded that I learn their language when I came to Northwestern University in Boston. I didn't mind it at first, but I did resent the force of their demands. It was as if they were re-channeling their anger of being shunted aside by the hearing world toward me: I was only a deaf oralist.

But even after graduating with a degree in Finance from Northwestern, I was still lonely.

True, learning ASL was confusing at first, the complex code of hands unfolding in the space between us deafies. Gradually it made sense, and I felt happier than I had in a long time. The deafies understood all of my feelings without needing an explanation, and they never assumed I'd understand everything they signed.

A world of miracles had opened before my eyes, and the promise of a life made richer by friends who understood me so completely was tantalizing.

My first job was at the Lorenz Bank in downtown Boston. The staff turnover rate there was unbelievable, but then again, most banks everywhere had that problem; I hung in long enough to be promoted to the position of head teller. I knew that if I stayed long enough, I'd be promoted out of the customer service area, which I hated because of the amount of lipreading required (where "fifty" looked like "fifteen," and vice versa, on the lips), and into the back office operations.

One day, while standing in line for lunch at a coffee shop, I met a hearing woman who didn't know any signs and who made it clear that my hearing aids didn't bother her. I was surprised. Most women had treated me as if I needed taking care of, but Myra was different. She refused to worry about whether I understood the waiter, or even her. It was difficult at first, but she made me believe that if I wanted to succeed in the hearing world, I should never ask for special privileges because of my hearing aids. She even gasped at the way my parents tried to make themselves understood on their first meal with her; I'd gotten so accustomed to their over-enunciations.

She had wanted to be an actress, even getting three callbacks for the role of Mimi in the Boston production of Rent once, but she didn't get in. During the day she worked as a receptionist at a temp agency. She lived on Beacon Hill with two female roommates, and I lived near the South End.

One night she and I went out dancing at Alonzo's. The music was so loud I didn't need my hearing aids, so I turned them off; the bass itched my feet. Over by the bar, she tried to whisper right into my left hearing aid.

I gave her a look of please-don't, and gently guided her back a little for easier lipreading.

Once outside in the cool air, she said, "You need better hearing aids, David."

While I researched the pros and cons of the implant, and then finally talked with my parents, who were overjoyed they were indeed alive to see such a miracle afforded by science and technology, I kept thinking of Myra. She was beautiful in her silky spaghetti strap dresses that revealed the pointedness of her breasts. The deaf women I met seemed so blunt by comparison. Her neck was impeccably smooth, set off by her tumbling brown curls, and she permitted me to lick her behind the ear. I wanted to amplify my desire, and she turned down the volume by giving me a calm-down look. "Later, boy. Later."

One night I told her of my plans to hear her sexy voice better.

She laughed, striking a match for her cigarette. "Hey, whatever makes you happy, David."

The more time I spent attending deaf events in the Boston area, the more I saw how clannish the deaf community really was. Everyone had opinions about each other, and everyone, it seemed, avoided certain people, who in turn avoided others for reasons I couldn't always pinpoint.

One night, after a staged reading of a new deaf play at the New Theater, I saw a conversation between two deaf women who thought I'd left already, or hadn't known that I was there in the first place; I caught them using my name sign. Lori, one of the two, was someone I hadn't been sure whether to ask out for a date, since she was fiercely Deaf, always using the capital D for the sign. " . . . some hard-of-hearing sign funny, clumsy same David. Improve signing can't. That-him, seems."

I stepped out of the shadows and gave them the stiffest smile I could muster.

They fell over themselves to apologize.

I revealed nothing on my face, like the inscrutable face of a hearing person impossible to lipread.

From that night on afterwards, I kept thinking, If they could talk like that about me in public, what else could they come up with behind closed doors? I wanted to be one of them, but if they were so catty, then why was the deaf community supposed to be so nurturing and supportive? I'd felt so encouraged to learn ASL, as if they needed friends. Why did they lie to me? Was deaf culture a sham after all?

Later that week I sold all my sign language DVDs in exchange for a few closed-captioned comedies, and I wept through each of them.

My body still under anesthesia, I find my spirit floating right through the doors down the corridor to where my parents are sitting and reading heavily-thumbed outdated magazines and waiting anxiously to hear the status of my operation, I search for Myra. It is strange how clearly I can hear everything now, with none of the electronic distortion that comes from interpreting the sound waves captured by hearing aids, and what incredible depths of sound I've missed all my life since my infantile bout with rubella. I can hear.

Shouting with joy, I race like a tidal wave, coasting past business-like nurses pushing carts of the next tasteless meal, doctors standing close to the distraught relatives of a patient near death, and janitors mopping up floors until I find Myra standing inside a closed phone booth. But no one hears me at all.

She is laughing, talking with someone.

I glide into the booth, moving my ear right next to the phone receiver.

It is a man, also laughing.

They are reminiscing about a summer they once spent at Martha's Vineyard.

"Don't you ever wish we could get back together?"

She sighs. "Yeah, but I got this boyfriend . . . ."

"What if he can't hear as well as promised? Technology's not always what it's cracked up to be, you know."

"I don't know." She hesitates. "What if he ends up looking like a freak with that thing behind his head?"

Inside my skull is a place no one can ever touch — except surgeons. I have asked for a lifetime of improved hearing, but as my surgeon flattens the thin flap of shaved skin over my skull and carefully stitches the incision, and as I feel pulled back into the inert body that belongs to me, the enormous serendipity of my signature on all those medical forms hits me. I am home-free, but I have no home to return to.

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Copyright (c) 2007 Raymond Luczak

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

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