The Message She Sent, a short story
Geri and her little sister, Rachel, were both deaf. Geri was a year or two younger than I; Rachel was a year or two younger than Geri. I never met their parents, so I don’t know if they were deaf, too. The two deaf sisters latched onto me probably because I was the only kid in the neighborhood who could bear to look them in the eye and try, laboriously, to understand what it was they were trying to say. This was during the era when all deaf children with even a small degree of hearing were made to wear cumbersome, boxy hearing aids strapped to the body and were trained, with varying but always limited degrees of success, to speak. Some deaf children growing up at that time were forcibly kept from using sign language.
The hearing world wanted them to blend in, to not cause trouble. The philosophy was to treat them just like the hearing, well-nigh ignore their disability. The approach had worked only slightly for Geri. She could speak, in a flat, nasal voice, but she left out many of the necessary sounds of the words. Her lips moved correctly, her teeth and tongue worked properly together as she’d been shown, but a word like “hello” would be unrecognizable without great effort on the part of the listener. I had to read her lips, too, just as she read mine.
She taught me the alphabet in sign language, and tried to teach me signs for whole words, but I couldn’t seem to remember them no matter how much we worked together. Sometimes I had her write things down, but mostly, I understood what she wanted to tell me without much trouble. We communicated a lot without any language. In fact, the very best times with Geri were when there was nothing to say, no requirement for communication whatsoever, when all that was necessary was a simple co-appreciation of events, a shared glance and smile. Geri’s hearty, soundless laughter was infectious and could usually cause me to fall to my knees with mutual hilarity.
She was a beautiful girl, far more so than I. Her hair was sun-streaked blonde and fell to her waist — her arms and legs were so long she seemed like a young antelope. Her skin was a clear, delicate buff — her eyes stood out, big, round and blue, set in a long, fine and lively face. Her eyebrows were usually raised in attitudes of curiosity, delight, or occasionally, trepidation. The only thing less than perfect were her buck teeth, but even those were startling white, gleaming, and pushed her rosy, full lips into a charming pout of concern.
Her sister Rachel, on the other hand, was a little troll. Similar to Geri in certain respects, but short-limbed and stout, not fat but packaged with strong, barrel muscles. She could not speak at all, wore no hearing aid, and only grunted. Geri’s hands flew, talking to Rachel. But Rachel, when she came over to my house, was interested chiefly in food, and eventually didn’t wait for an offering but rummaged through our pantry and refrigerator on her own and ate anything she pleased.
The first time she did so, I was shocked and angry because ours was not a house of plenty and I knew I would be in trouble when my parents found out, but Rachel turned her face to me with such complete incomprehension and joy as she ate, that I knew there was nothing to be done. Geri scolded her with her fingers but Rachel wouldn’t turn her head out of the refrigerator to look. She loved sweets, cookies or candy, even fruit yogurt. We didn’t have much, but she ate whatever we had in its entirety. Geri, by contrast, would hold one cookie and make it last, nibbling tiny bites in neat order.
Our daily bike races — Geri’s hair flying out behind her — were evenly matched. Geri always seemed on the verge of flight; sometimes it seemed God’s cruelest trick that she had no wings to carry her about. Climbing trees could take an entire Saturday. So could sitting under the bushes watching an anthill or hunting for duck nests. Geri always seemed to know where to look to find something beautiful. Her favorite game, though, was to give chase or be chased. She’d tap my shoulder and take off. I’d do the same. But the other kids in the neighborhood would leave the area in a hurry whenever they saw Geri and her sister coming.
Slowly, Geri and Rachel began to be my only company. They were always there. First thing in the morning, last at night. Whenever the doorbell rang, it was them. I didn’t mind, exactly, until the kids at the bus stop started conspicuously falling silent as I approached. They’d move their lips and pretend to keep talking. I tried to ignore them, not very successfully.
One day, Geri wanted to brush my hair — her fingers were monkeylike on my scalp, and her touch provoked a tender shiver and the rising of small hairs on the back of my neck and shoulders. Her hands were gentle, even courtly, with the brush. Then she indicated to me she wanted to braid it. She did, but so terribly loose that afterward I was afraid to move my head too far in one direction or the other for fear of spoiling her work.
She was guileless, unsullied by the meanness or lasciviousness that was slowly engulfing the other neighborhood kids our age — yet late at night in my bed, when she inevitably appeared in my winding-down thoughts, I was startled to find myself imagining her dancing in the nude — turning her head this way and that, angling her arms and legs in slow Kabuki triangles. She was above the messiness of our lives, lofted into the thin blue stratosphere by an absence of one sense combined with a flowering of something else — a physical sensibility like that of a genius. I was stunned to worship many times by her careful placement of herself — her torso, arms and legs, arranged so gracefully.
I cannot tell you why, 30 years later, the thought and image of Geri renders me still and quiet, hushed and worshipful, feeling clumsy, insignificant and most profoundly inept. No — that’s a lie. I can. She was a beautiful deaf girl who loved me — this was the message she sent into the roots of my hair, lifting each section of braid like it was a rare, dissected, pulsing nerve. She made two careful braids, one behind each ear. The way she parted my hair with the comb was like zipping my head open and rearranging the numb contents. She was a beautiful creation. Her deafness had become to me not a defect, but a gift. She seemed like a butterfly perched on my finger. That delicate — but a butterfly who came back to me over and over.
Other friends grew distant; it took me weeks to notice. I lived in a world of chosen wordlessness. More than once, Geri put on the huge padded headphones from my father’s stereo — signaling me to turn the volume all the way up — and we danced, Geri with the headphones on, trailing the cord. I could hear the beat of the music, tinny, through the cups around Geri’s ears. Geri’s smile grew bigger than her face. Her buck teeth glowed as she tossed her long hair around, and I was happy, too.
Then one particular Saturday, Geri did not appear shortly after the dawn as was her habitual routine. Feeling odd, a bit adrift but also a bit scot-free, I rode my bike aimlessly down the road and ran into another bunch of kids, playing a more or less moronic game we called “TV Tag.” I hadn’t played it with them in a long time. The point of the game was to hide, to run for the base at a strategic moment, but then to call out the name of a television show if and when you were tagged, and if the TV show hadn’t yet been called by someone else, that meant you wouldn’t have to be “it” yet. We were in the thick of the game when someone spotted Geri and Rachel on foot headed toward us.
The sudden, unspoken agreement was for the group — yes, even me — to hide from the deaf girls, not to embrace them in our play, but to banish them utterly. Thus, I learned from the other children who’d been doing so for months how pitifully easy it was to hide from the deaf girls and to stay hidden, since we could call out their moving whereabouts freely to the others, and merely shifted farther and farther down the block away from them, running as fast as we could, shrieking as loudly as we pleased. That day, I learned a most horrible game of hide & seek. I have never forgotten the way Geri’s face looked, alarmed at first, then slowly sad, so very sad and lonely, pale and drawn — and from my ever-changing hiding places I saw her eyes, felt her gaze as she scanned the bushes for me, and heard her calling my name, that nasal and malformed sound I had grown to love. We didn’t stop hiding until she and Rachel had given up and, presumably, gone home.
Yes, I was a droll girl in those days — I hid from my deaf best friend and later the same day fed a morsel of prosciutto, Italian ham, to my Jewish best friend, Melinda. My misdeeds had to keep chop-chop with my brand-new knowledge of my own baseness. I knew it wasn’t a sin for her if she didn’t know it was ham — I told her it was Italian corned beef, and she, with misplaced faith, believed me. I understood I would be the one who went to Hell for it. Oddly enough, Melinda was the least deaf of anyone I knew. She could hear, it seemed, my thoughts. But only Geri knew my feelings.
If I could hold that girl and kiss her now, I would. With delight and affection, as if she were a sweet, melting jelly bean against my lips. I would tell her how I never forgot her, and never forgave myself. Because from that day — when I heard her call my name over and over and could not bring myself to answer — it was as if I was the one who was truly deaf, and she the one who could hear.