Now Steve could have been mighty frustrated, out-and-out angry (and I would have not been surprised, since this response is all too common when we are asked to repeat something)—but instead he smiled in his gentle way, the way that had attracted me to him in the first place. He pulled the car over to the curb on main street right then and there, and he shut it off. He turned to face me directly and I could read his lips then. “I said,” he still barely whispered, “would you wear my class ring?”
It was bitter cold, blustery, snowy December night on the western Kansas plains. But I was hot, my face burning. Shamed. And shamed not so much at having not heard the question the first three times, but also in having myself, my deafness, so thoroughly unmasked. It felt as if someone were holding a mirror up to the sun with the reflected sunlight piercing through me. The mirror in my ears hurt. And it hurt even more because in that one fleeting instant in that big Buick at the age of fifteen, I realized, too, how DEAF I was. And I knew I would have to say “no” to soft-spoken Steve, his gentle ways, his giant class ring. I was not hearing enough; he was not deaf enough. And although I couldn’t voice it at the time, I knew even then that this was more than just a sheet of glass between us, more than a barrier we could “talk” to each other through.
And I think—in fact, I’m sure—that he knew this, too. But still, instead of saying “never mind” or “oh, nothing” to my “What?” (the other most frequent responses) he let the moment play through, let me have the benefit of the words I had missed. He let me play at passing, let me play it as if it could really be, our going steady, our promise as a couple. He could have ridiculed me with taunts of “Gee, you just don’t hear anything,” or worse, in its “innocent” ignorance, “What’s wrong, are you DEAF?” Those, too, are all-too-common responses to my requests that statements be repeated.
So, the moment passed. Steve and I didn’t go steady. Nearly a decade later, when he and I were both married (to different persons, of course) we recounted this scene for our spouses; we laughed, they laughed. For a moment, Steve and I locked eyes—and I read it all there: he had known then, as he knew now, that I was indeed deaf. But neither he nor I, then nor at the present moment, would say the word. We let it pass. The conversation went on elsewhere.
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