“Small word, big question.” That’s what Mum used to say when too tired to answer properly. Only it’s not a small word anymore, not for me.
“How?” in Australian sign language, a.k.a. Auslan, starts with two palms held upward, one above the other. You slide your hands apart to create a space between them, and they stay facing up, empty—?the idea being, I guess, for someone to metaphorically fill them with knowledge. I think of it as a shrugless huh?
It’s a big sign, then, rather than a small word, but the question remains huge.
I think G knows that, which is why it’s taken her so long to ask.
We’re sitting side by side in a corner of the campus that most people avoid because it’s too noisy. Perhaps that’s what drew us here. The first time I came to the University of Adelaide—?for a winter school held in the holidays between second and third terms, when everyone else was heading northward for warmth—?the renovations were annoying, but I can’t hear them now. All I can feel is the occasional vibration as machines hammer and thunder on the other side of a canvas fence, invisible but present—?like our uncertain futures. Everything has been thoroughly overturned in the last three months and nineteen days.
G has her knees drawn up tight to her chest, scuffed Doc Martens jammed hard on the bench as though she’s bracing herself to jump. When she’s not talking, her hands clutch her forearms in a monkey grip, scars vivid violet like they’ve been drawn on with marker. We’re so close our hips are touching, and I consciously note for the first time that she doesn’t smell like other girls. Where most I know are too sharp and sweet, she’s pleasantly sour, lemon in hot tea. With every breath, I strain to take in a bit more of her.
We’ve been seeing a lot of each other lately, but I’ve not yet admitted to myself that I’m falling in love with her. This is just one of many things I can’t put into words. How can I? All I have are numb approximations—?shapes in the air that bear no relation at all to sound or language or music, as irrelevant as my fingers on the neck of my guitar . . .
G nudges me with her shoulder, reminding me of the question, and I nod, reaching into my pocket. Some things are easier to explain by phone, or at least less impossible.
I have brain damage.
She, leaning closer to read the words on my phone’s glowing screen, makes a gesture I guess means, Tell me something I don’t already know. I scrunch up the left side of my face and keep tapping on the screen.
No, really. Bilateral embolic stroke to Heschl’s gyrus.
I haven’t typed the words to anyone before, so the phone autocorrects the last two to “Heathland Guru.” It sounds like a band but not a good one, a bland purveyor of the kind of Top 40 shit that I once loved to hate but now would kill to hear.
Ears work fine, but my brain is deaf as a post.
G snatches the phone from me and types: Hysterical?
I think she’s being ironic before I absorb the question mark. Trying not to bristle, I answer, I’m not imagining it. I can show you the scans if you want.
She reaches behind me and puts her hand on my neck, thumb and fingers on either side of my spine, and butts my shoulder with her right temple. The smell of her becomes much stronger. I tilt my head and breathe in deeply, clearing my mental sinuses: hair, skin, G. Maybe I’m smelling a bit of her home as well, and suddenly I really want to see where she eats, where she watches TV, where she sleeps.
While I’m lost in a pleasantly detailed daydream, she takes the phone and types something with her left hand.
Well, thanks to you and your gimpy gyrus, I’ve lost a bet.
It’s my turn to make the how? sign, which creates a small space between us. Her hand leaves my neck. She sits straight as she taps out the words.
Rock god goes deaf, duh. You didn’t say, so we thought you were embarrassed about blowing your eardrums out onstage. As you should have been. So obvious—?
I snatch the phone from her.
You think I’m that stupid?
I don’t mention the times I gigged without plugs or practiced solos with my headphones turned up so loud my ears rang for hours.
She snatches the phone back.
Being deaf is . . .
She stops Swyping, and I stare at those three words, knowing she was about to write stupid but thought better of it. There’s no reason to make it personal.
At the same time, though, her auditory nerves aren’t going to magically repair themselves any more than my Heschl’s gyrus is going to hatch like a cocoon to reveal a beautiful butterfly. When we’re angry, we have to blame something.
Or change the subject.
How much did you lose on the bet?
A round of drinks for the whole class.
When did all this happen?
One of the many days you didn’t show.
I’m not pissed at G, but it does shit me a little that she and the rest of the newly deaf discussed me behind my back.
Farid said you showed all the signs of traumatic brain injury. Everyone agreed.
Don’t give me a medal or anything. I thought you were an idiot for playing your amp too loud.
She’s smiling. I can see her expression reflected in the strengthened glass.
I need to do something to regain the initiative. Can’t have her thinking I’m the punch line of a bad joke.
You ever hear any Blackmod?
That was the name of my last band. I am briefly but immensely relieved it wasn’t one of the others: Ratzinger, InTerrorBang, übertor, Anal Twin . . .
She signs, No.
I stand up and strike a pose: imaginary guitar in left hand, pick held high in right, hair swept over my shoulder, grimace. Never forget the grimace. With the sound of remembered drums in my useless ears, I bring my right hand down for the opening chord of “Intoxicated Tyrants.” The moves are fresh in my mind, having played through it only yesterday, on a real instrument, for the benefit of no one but my...