One Less Sense

by Kathy Coogan

A random eight word prompt provoked this short story. As often happens, the story came out of nowhere. It is a story about hearing loss in a young woman. How the loss of one sense alters every part of her life. Even I have no idea what suggested it. My muse is a mystery to me!

(The eight words are in bold in the text.)

Maddie had just managed to catch her train after running with unaccustomed awkwardness to her stop. The rumbling El waits for no one. A man in an aisle seat had moved his knees aside so that she could scramble into the one by the window. He was a large man holding a bunch of daisies wrapped in tissue. She had squeezed by him trying not to make physical contact and trying not to squash his flowers in the tiny space. But as she settled in for the long ride home she was uncomfortably aware of his thigh pressing against hers, inadvertently, she hoped, so she shifted even closer to the window.

He said something but she couldn’t make it out so she nodded, hoping that he had said excuse me or something else inane. She didn’t want to turn to face him to find out. It had been one long day of many long weeks learning all the new necessary adjustments. She closed her eyes and rested her head against the window. But she found that things got scary when she closed her eyes, like in horror movies when the director combined darkness and silence to terrify. Taking one more sense out of the equation seemed to magnify the unfamiliarity. So she opened her eyes.

As she leaned against the glass, she experienced the vibration against her temple in a way that she never had before. Since her hearing had started to go she noticed new clarity in other sensations, just as her speech and hearing pathologist had told her she would. But it wasn’t always pleasant. Now the rumble of the El was limited to a weird physical humming that she felt in her feet and her rear-end as they made contact with floor and seat. The vibration, in this case, told her that the train was beginning to move, as her ears might have done when they were healthy.

In her old hearing life, the noisy music of the shambling, rambling El was annoying. Lots of other rattles and clatters used to drive her nuts, too. The squeaking of the ventilation fan in her apartment required numerous calls to the super that were largely ignored. Lying in bed, hearing a faucet drip, drip, drip would make her throw her blankets aside to stride into the bathroom to tighten the handle, watching carefully until the sink sat dry.

She had been wondering a lot lately if she would forget sounds as her hearing disappeared completely. Rumble, clatter, rattle, drip. She remembered long ago watching an old movie on her mom’s lap, the young, non-drug-addicted Judy Garland singing, “Zoom, Zoom, Zoom Went the Trolley.” As she sat on the El, Maddie was pleased that she still remembered the tune. But she realized for the first time that the word zoom sounded nothing like the actual sound and that bells didn’t clang at all. She was angry that those promised onomatopoeia words: swish, bang, boom were all frauds, completely made up, with little relationship to the real sounds at all.

The auto-immune disease that had sneaked in on silent cat feet had robbed her, gradually, gradually, until she couldn’t deny it. She had ignored the more obvious symptoms as long as she could--turning up the radio in the car too loud; having people tell her that she was yelling into the phone when she thought she was speaking normally.

When she finally went to the doctor, it took long weeks trundling off to specialists who finally gave her the bad news. She was 29 and going deaf. Like the straight-man in a joke, she had actually leaned in closer to the doctor and said, “What?” She hadn’t realized that for a long time she had been reading lips to help her hear and she had done it then, unconsciously. Soon that would be her only option, when the last bit of her hearing was lost to her forever.

She had been offered the hope of cochlear implants, the devices that she thought of as replacing “ear hearing” with “brain hearing.” She tried not to get her hopes up when Ted, one of the audiologists, had said they were assessing her for these amazing aids. Her insurance might even pay most of the cost. Cochlear implants were most successful when implantation began soon after loss of hearing. She would be notified soon. But she felt tired and defeated and doubtful, her optimism a finite thing.

She felt the train-seat shift as the big man got up. She took the chance and looked up at him with curiosity. She saw his mouth move but of course heard nothing. He raised his eyebrows at her in the question-mark-expression. She just smiled and shook her head in the No-gesture. He shrugged and walked down the aisle. Maybe he thought she didn’t speak English.

Maddie hated the mystery of these interactions with people. Had he said, “Have a nice day” or “Now you have the seat all to yourself” or "Kiss my ass”? She just didn’t know and it scared her to death. The visual signals of communication were meant to be augmented with aural ones. They were inadequate parts of the puzzle that she could not assemble without her hearing.

For a minute she was disoriented. Even more disoriented than she had been constantly since her diagnosis. She looked around feeling panicky, afraid that she had missed her stop. The garbled voice in the speaker box announcing next stops had always been laughable. She and her friends had groused about the ineffectuality of them, the speakers so old that understanding the message was impossible unless you already knew what the disembodied voice was saying; too much bass and too much treble all at the same time. Now she’d give her left ear to be able to hear it. Since her left ear was now useless. Then she saw landmarks. She still had a few stops to go.

Voice. People who had healthy hearing didn’t realize that deafness robbed you of two things: your hearing and your voice. She could no longer hear herself talk. It made her afraid to speak; afraid that she’d sound like Alvin the Chipmunk or Hulk Hogan or worse like a slurry drunk. It wasn’t fair. She had been one of those occasional karaoke singers who people would stop talking and drinking to listen to. She was no Barbra Streisand but she did an okay, “People”.

And dancing. She would miss dancing so. She knew that deaf people could dance by feeling the vibrations from the floor but she had no interest in that granny-dancing. Her hearing deficit compromised her balance so the thought of cutting loose, arms flying, hips shimmying, weight shifting from toes to heels was terrifying. Running to catch this train had reminded her of that.

She wasn’t entirely self-pitying. She knew that there were people lots worse off and she was grateful for a lot. She thanked God for texting cell phones. She could still talk to friends and make plans and feel safe via her I-phone. She shivered to think of life without it. Now she used it to communicate even with people sitting right across the table from her. Almost everyone she knew had one, even her parents who had never even had voice mail before this. Of course Rob had one of the first, but she wasn’t going to foist herself on poor Rob. He had asked her to marry him before her diagnosis but why would he want to waste his vitality on her now?

It broke her heart to think of life without Rob. They had been intertwined for so long sharing love of sports and movies and discovering new bands in neighborhood bars. But her loss should not contaminate him. She was doing all she could to let him go: picking stubbornly silent fights, not answering his texts and even implying that she was interested in Ted, the audiologist, a cute guy who innocently flirted with her.

Maddie saw the landmarks of her stop approaching. She gathered herself. She stood, checking for vertigo. Okay. She walked to the back door and waited for the other passengers to depart. As she stepped out she stopped again to get grounded, still frightened by the silence of the bustling crowds. A rushing commuter bumped into her, his mouth moving angrily at her. She turned to the stairway. As she looked up she saw Rob smiling, standing posed in a gesture of “Tah-dah. Here I am.”

She wanted to turn away from him, too dispirited to be happy to see him. This would never work. She wasn’t going to drag him down with her as her life continued to change so radically. Just then her cell phone tingled in her jeans pocket. She stopped and touched the screen where she saw three words that would change her life, maybe even change her life back. She walked to Rob and simply held up the phone so he could read it.

Rob held up his finger pointing to the sky in the wait-one-second gesture. He thumbed the keys on his phone and stood waiting until Maddie felt her phone buzz again. She read the new message on her screen. Tears came into her eyes. The first message had been from Ted: Cochlear implants okayed. The second, from Rob, had read, No reason not to marry me now.

She would have texted him in response but her nod had been enough. He had lifted her and was spinning her around as the silent commuters hustled past.

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