Say It With Voice

Say It With Voice

By Dreena Rogue

My parents lost their hearing when I was two. I lost my voice when I was four. If they could stop listening, then I could stop talking.

Story Synopsis
Koe, a high school senior who is mute, is waiting for his best childhood friend, Tomo, to come home from college. Koe has news for Tomo, but Koe’s not sure how Tomo will react. Will Tomo accept the news? Or will the friendship end in ruin?

***

I watch the numbers on my phone change, colored pixels reorganizing themselves. The countdown today is more than just to the weekend. He is coming home today. I’m not sure why I care. I’m not sure why I have been passing the time during my senior classes following him across various social media sites. Classes are too easy? College is more interesting? Trying to persuade myself to go by living vicariously through his experience? No. I know why.

The teacher shuffles paper, swipes her desk into a drawer, checks her phone, and makes some off-hand sarcastic comment to a nearby student. The class at the front chuckles. I stare out the window at the blinding reflection coming off the snow. The window glass is cold on my fingertips, but the sun beams are warm. When the bell rings, I pocket my phone and walk out with the herd.

The smoke from my breath floats out like a lazy dragon’s. The sun pierces my eyes when I look up to watch the smoke dissipate into the empty space around me. I check my phone again. My cigarette isn’t wasting enough time. Or did he just fail to text me of his arrival? On the corner of the school lot, several other students have gathered to smoke. Most are vapers. They complain and rejoice about the week. They discuss plans. They all say they have plans, but I know better. No one has plans. No one is going to do what they claim. We will all just be sitting around. A teacher walks up to bum a cigarette. He knocks my bike and it leans over against me. He mumbles an apology and I hand him a cigarette.

“Got any plan this weekend?” he politely inquires.

I shake my head.

“Really? Nothing? Not going to the game? No parties? Hot dates?”

I shake my head. I look around for anything. Giving him the cigarette hasn’t sent him on his way like I thought it would. I don’t want to waste my cigarette smoking while riding my bike, but I don’t want to communicate with him. School is over. This is the students’ corner.

“Just gonna stare at your phone? Play some video games?”

My face must portray me because I lock glances with another guy and he pipes up. “Hey, you must be that new teacher because he doesn’t talk.”

“I… uhh… Oh. Sorry.”

I drop my cigarette and crush it beneath my shoe. To mount my bike, I have to impose myself into his personal space. This teacher is seriously in my business. I pedal off, nodding to the student who helped me out.

The sun and chemicals have collaborated to melt the snow on the road, but the sidewalks are still snow covered and icy. A car honks at me. “Like I have a choice,” I think. I hate biking on the road because I have to focus. My mind wanders through his feed. Will he bring anyone home? Is he still playing? I haven’t seen anything on his feed about playing.

His house and my house aren’t far from the school or each other. Close enough that I was walking there by myself when I was only ten, shortly after we first met. The shortest route would have been to pass my house to get to his, but I didn’t. No real reason. I just didn’t because I could. Another car honks as I risk the yellow.

In front of his house, I check my phone. No message. Nothing on the feed. I pocket my phone and reach in  for another cigarette. I light it, cupping the flame to warm my hand. There are no cars in the driveway. Even his parents aren’t home. The key is under the concrete goose, but that feels weird.

I stand there on the shoveled sidewalk , the cold metal bar of the bike resting between my legs, tapping each thigh gently. I rock a little side-to-side to the rhythm in my own head. I can’t put words or even music to the rhythm. It is just there. The cigarette warms my lips as it burns down. Time passes. I look up at the brick two-story, settling on his window. We had snuck out of that window and walked right back inside just to see if we could. We had no where to go.

A maroon family car pulls into the driveway. His ecstatic mother gets out of the car waving with an enthusiasm that makes me blush. I dismount from my bike.

“Koe! It is so good to see you.”

I stretch out my arm to the side to avoid catching the cigarette on his mom. Then, I lean in and wrap my other arm around her. She’s a passionate hugger, just like her waving. Some grey strands brush against my face.

“You know he doesn’t have to be home for you to come by for dinner. I mean, we keep finding left overs in the fridge because you two aren’t around to inhale it. Speaking of inhaling…” She frowns at my cigarette.

“Sorry,” I sign and flick it to the street. It quicksands into a sooted, manmade snow drift.

“I don’t know why or how your parents put up with it. But not in my house! And just for that, you have to carry all the bags in. Honey, put those bags down. That’s Koe’s job.”

I smile. I take the grocery bags and hang them off the handlebars of my bike. I follow behind them to the side door.

His dad hung a bike rack in the laundry room just inside the door. There are four spots. The lowest one is reserved for me, even though I am at least taller than his mom now.

“You can set the bags down there. Do want a drink or snack? Tomo messaged and said he’d be about twenty minutes. He had to drop someone off.”

I shake my head no and sign, “Homework.”

“Okay, I’ll let him know you’re upstairs.” She pats my cheek, “I’m so glad you came over.”

I forgot how much I am family here. I duck upstairs, pass the step with the bleached carpet where I busted my head box sledding. It was my idea. He took the blame.

His door is closed. The metal knob is cool and polished. I pushed the door open. The first scent that rushes me is polish and laundry. Then, the usual aroma of books, cards, dirty clothes, and old cologne waft over me. I cross the threshold into the room, the waning sun fills it with an orange glow that warms and thaws my fingers, ears, nose, and lips.

I sit down on his bed. I don’t have any homework to do, but the prospect of sitting at the kitchen bar having a one-sided conversation about my current and post school career is grueling. Thumbing through my feed again, I see the obligatory thank you with selfie from the girl he dropped off. He will be here any minute. I lean back on his bed. His mom has straightened things and a new bookshelf has been installed near his desk. No doubt they expect him to fill it with his mighty important textbooks.

College. Would I go or…? Or what? Navigating a new social scene just to do it all over again when I start my career seems unnecessary. I could just stay on at the restaurant and work my way up. No degree needed. The only guy there with a degree is an ex-therapist who lost his license after sleeping with a client. He likes to take the female employees out for their birthdays, especially the eighteen year olds. This works when you’re old enough to buy liquor. He is rarely repaid in full. The girls are starting to talk. I always listen. When I become manager, I’ll fire his ass.

I am retrieving another cigarette and making my way to the window when I hear the front door open and slam shut. Joyous voices resound and dissipate into mumbles. Footsteps leap up the stairs and the door slams open.

Tomo stares at me with a huge grin on his face. His feathered hair dangles across his eye brows. His thin, orange bubble coat isn’t even off yet. His blue duffle bag hangs heavy at his side and a bulging backpack pulls him upright.

“Koe!” He exclaims. Two steps and he throws his arms around me. I stumble back a little into his desk. The sun beaming through the window catches us. He inhales deeply against me. “You changed your cigarettes.”

I let my arms return the hug. He changed his cologne.

He leans back from me and sizes me up. “It feels like it’s been forever and not just four months. But I guess when you suddenly go from spending every day together since you were eight to not seeing each other at all, it’s bound to feel like forever.”

I smile and nod, a little uncomfortable under his gaze. I clutch my cigarette a little too hard.

“Well, thanks for not changing too much. I don’t think I can handle any changes in my life right now.”

I give him a questioning look.

“Let me get one,” and he points to the cigarette in my hand.

I straighten it out, put it to my mouth, light it, and hand it over to him.

“Thanks. It’s nothing major… just… I don’t know,” he lets his bags drop to the floor with a heavy thud. “It’s weird being away from home.” He opens the window and blows the smoke out. He passes it to me. “I guess the job lets you buy better stuff.”

I nod, take a drag, and pass it back.

“So many people around me all the time. Seems like someone is always looking, judging, wanting, plus a ten page paper nagging me. And although I’m happy to come home and get away from it for a while, it’s weird knowing that I’m under my parents watch again. Even if it is just a formality in a way.”

He passes the cigarette back to me with barely anything but a stub. I suck it down and put it out in an old and empty ceramic pencil holder.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to just lay that on you as soon as I walked in. How are you?”

I nod and shrug.

“Boys, dinner!” His dad yells up the steps.

“I know there’s more to it than that, but we got all night.”

I smile. I had requested off tonight and tomorrow in hopes that he would want to hang out. But some childish high school kid anxiety in me had worried that the big college kid would find some way to ignore me. I closed the window.

Dinner and dessert are Tomo’s favorite foods. His favorites from when he was eleven. Before he left for college, his favorite was extra spicy pineapple fried rice. I wasn’t sure what it was now, but it had not returned to crockpot ribs and macaroni & cheese. It was good nonetheless and Tomo filled all the silence with anecdotes about classes, professors, exams, and his roommate. He was getting a new one next semester, switching with a guy down the hall.

Full, we push our ice cream bowls away. The spoons clang in the empty dishes. I sign, “Good. Thank you,” to his parents.

“Anytime,” his mother reiterates. I guess she worries I’m not eating enough now that I’m not coming over. My parents maybe don’t talk, but we still eat dinner. Although, now I mostly eat at work. I like the hustle and bustle of sitting in the back of the kitchen with the dishwashers. It’s funny to listen to how the gossip has evolved by the time it gets back to them.

I nod and we excuse ourselves.

Upstairs, Tomo unpacks his bags. They are filled with mostly dirty clothes. The new shelf remains empty. He sold his books back to the store for credit towards next semester’s textbook purchase.

Finally, he pulls out his decks from the bottom of his backpack. He looks over at me.

My eyebrows go up.

“Yeah, I still play. There’s a couple of guys on campus that play. Most of them assholes, but, you know.”

I nod and retrieve my own decks. Tomo throws the dirty clothes into a hamper to clear a spot on the floor. We sit down across from each other and start shuffling.

“So back to you. What’s new?”

I shrug and sign, “Working.”

“Yeah, I saw your employment update on your feed. How’s that going?”

“Good,” I sign.

We deal out our hands and review our cards. I’ll probably have to get lucky.

“Any girls there? Or is Nozomi keeping them at bay.”

I laugh, shaking my head, and sign, “No.” Nozomi is a senior as well. She dated Tomo for a while a few years back, but she only talked about me. It seemed she was just trying to get closer to me. Tomo didn’t have any hard feelings about it, but it made her rather annoying to both of us. She does come by the shop a lot to flirt, but I always find something important to do in the back. Like a smoke break.

Tomo laughs, too. “Oh man, do you remember when she brought us apology cookies after I broke up with her for trying to steal your number from my phone?”

I laughed even harder and sign, “Yes! Yes!”

“Damn, those were the best cookies. If you were to text her right now, do you think she would bring us some?”

I shrug and nod. There was no telling with her. I sign, giving him a quizzical look. “You?”

“Nah. Maybe a girl here or there.”

I just kind of stare, maybe a little surprised, and wait for more details.

He stares back at me and then at his cards. “Yeah, there’s no one.”

I chuckle a little and he does, too. Girls have always been awkward for us.

We play out our game. The conversation slowly dwindles. I win two out of three. There is truly never much to say. Tomo thinks aloud through something in reflection from the semester, but I don’t need to say anything. Tomo has picked-up enough sign language for us to carry out a more in-depth conversation, or we could have texted each other, but that isn’t what he needs.

Tomo stretches back on the carpet after putting his cards away. He groans, “Damn, I’m tired and it’s barely ten o’clock.”

He drags himself over to the bed and flops down face first. I join him, sitting on the edge of the twin. I shake my leg nervously. Tomo just lays there. His hand rests comfortably next to his face, fingers slightly curved. His eyes, closed, are relaxed. His mouth barely open, I can hear the whisper of his breath. I knew this lull would come, but I never figured it so soon. I’ve practiced for this moment. I’ve practiced since two weeks after he left. My shaking leg shakes the bed. I want a cigarette. I consider getting up and going to the window. Or just going home.

“You know you’re welcome to stay and all, but you need to go shake your leg on your own futon. It’s probably still in the hall closet.”

I stop shaking my leg, but I don’t move from my seat. Silent seconds pass. I’ve practiced it so many times. I know I can do it. I open my mouth and close it again.

“What’s wrong? You’re flexing your mouth all weird.”

I glance at him to find his face contorted with concern. I open my mouth, only to close it again, like a gasping fish out of water. I look away again and put my face in my hands.

He sits up, startled. His hand falls gently on my shoulder. “Seriously, Koe, are you okay?”

So many times I stared into the mirror, for three months everyday. Choking, gasping, stuttering, until I could say it smoothly and calmly. But now, he’s here, back in front of me, and I can’t…can’t… I have to. I squeeze my eyes shut. “I… I love you,” my shaky voice whispers.

“What?… What?!” His hand pulls away. The mattress shifts as I feel him pull away. “You just… and said… aloud that…”

I turn to look at him. He has shrunken back in horror, staring at me in disbelief. I’m holding back tears. Why is he staring at me like that? Doesn’t he know how hard that was?

“You… you can talk?” Tomo whispers back. “What the hell, Koe!” he starts yelling. “I mean, what the fuck! All this time and you can talk?”

It is my turn to look surprised. Fear filling my head and lungs. I start signing to try to explain, but he shoves me off the bed in a fit of rage. I tumble onto the floor. I reach for my phone to text him. He leaps off the bed and tackles me. He grabs the phone and throws it against the wall, the pieces blow apart on impact.

His chest heaving, he straddles me, leaning over my body, “If you can talk, talk!”

But I hadn’t rehearsed this. I hadn’t practice saying anything else. I don’t know if I can. Why is he so mad? I stare deep down into his eyes looking for the reason. My lips clutch tightly shut.

When he left for college, I didn’t think it would matter. We’d text or whatever. We’d stay in touch and it would be like it always is. And we did text here and there. But it wasn’t enough. Everyday there was this something that nagged and pulled on me and I couldn’t get away.

He grips my shirt collar, pulls me up and slams me down again, shaking me. “All this time and you can talk? All this time that I took up for you, helped you… Everyone who has helped you for no reason? For bullshit when you could talk the whole time.”

I shake me head. I want to speak, but I didn’t rehearse anything but those words. No explanation, no small chat, no declaration of honesty… But I was speaking truth. I need to tell him the story of the old lady who came into the restaurant. She described missing her late husband and her words sent me crying to the backroom. Those words were the truth that I needed to bring the realization to surface.

“And then you say you love me? That’s the first thing you say to me? What does that even mean?”

He doesn’t get it? How does he not get it? For nine years, it’s been me and him. He took up for and helped me because he loved me, right? I just lie on the floor with my lip quivering, trying to look away and not cry. His hands hurt me as they press my wrists into the floor. No signing, no texting. All I have is my one phrase and it has led to this.

“I can’t… This has got to be some weird dream.” Tomo stands up. He circles the room before sitting on his bed with his head in his hands. “I don’t need another change in my life,” he mumbles.

I sit up and crawl over to the pieces of my phone. The screen is cracked. I put the battery in and the back on.  I press the power button. Nothing. I look over at Tomo. He is still sitting on the edge of the bed, head hung, staring at the floor. I put the phone in my pocket and picked up my backpack. Tomo doesn’t move. I thought college was going to kill our friendship.

I see myself out. I hear his parent’s bedroom door creak open. I don’t look in that direction. No one says anything to me, if anyone was even there. I take the stairs by three, remove my bike from the rack, and exit out the laundry room door. The cold air feels like nothing.

My voice has been the death nail of our friendship. I knew there was a reason I didn’t talk. On the bike ride back to my house, I remember the last time my parents spoke. They had been arguing about something. Something had broken. Eventually they started pointing at me. I was two. I just stood there staring. Their voices hurt my stomach. I was glad they stopped talking after that. But I missed the nice words, like “I love you.”

I park my bike in the shed and creep through the back door. I take off my shoes to avoid squeaking down the wood floors of the hallway. The noise grates on me the way it echoes through the dead air of the house. Luckily, my parents are in their room. No light comes from under their door. Exhaustion sweeps over me, physical and emotional, and I flop onto my futon. The bottom of my jeans are wet with snow. For a moment, I don’t care. But then I take them off, releasing a little aggression as I throw them across the room. I knew talking wouldn’t bring me anything good. But I just thought that if I said the most honest and caring words I knew, it might just work out.

I pull my comforter over my lap and pick up my tablet. I type the following message to my mom and dad, “Home. Phone broke. Message me here.”

I hear my parents’ phones bleep. Shortly after, I have a new message from my mom. “OK. Everything OK? Thought u were staying at Tomo’s?”

I put the tablet beside me on the bed, not sure how to answer it. Not in the mood to answer. I reach down to my pocket for a cigarette. Boxers. My cigarettes are in my jeans which are now across the room. I slump back against the wall, legs stretched out before me. I am so tired. I close my eyes and wait for the exhaustion to take me.

A knock on my window wakes me. The time on my tablet flashes 3:12AM. The knock comes again. Startled, I jump up and peer through the curtain. Tomo is standing there, looking to either side and jumping in place to stay warm. Snow dusts his head. My heart leaps out of my stomach. I quick open my window to let him in.

“About time. That was my fifth knock.”

“Sorry,” I sign.

He tousles the snow from his head and takes off his jacket. He drapes it over my desk chair. I retrieve a pair of sweatpants he left at my house last spring from my drawer and hand them to him. He takes them and sits on the bed. Chunks of snow fall off his boots onto the rug. When he starts to change his pants, I looked away. He stops. “How do you love me?”

I stare back at him, the gray filter of ambient city light coming through the window illuminating us.

“Like a friend?”

I hesitate, not wishing to repeat the  earlier night’s events, then sign, “More.”

He puts the sweatpants down on the bed next to himself.

“I don’t really understand why. I’m just a guy you know, one of your friends.”

He’s talking a little louder than I would like him too. I squirm a little and then place a finger to my lips.

“Huh? Why? What? Are going to tell me that your parents can here us? That they could hear us this whole time?”

He is getting louder and I really don’t want them to hear this conversation, let alone wake them.

“Are you fucking serious!” He yells.

I rush over to him and place my hand across his mouth. He jerks his face away.

“I have a voice and I’m going to use it, damn it!”

“Stop!” I sign. I sit on the bed and grab my tablet.

“Why tonight? Why all of a sudden tell me all this? What the fuck is wrong with your family?”

I type and he looks over my shoulder, “A lot. Yes, just like me they made a choice. They are pretending like they are deaf.”

“Why?” he asks, quieting.

I type, “Conflict avoidant? A good excuse for whatever. To avoid that part of their relationship with each other. It’s easy to ignore something if you act like you can’t hear it.”

“But the virus?”

“Lie,” I type.

“Your genetic defect?”

“Lie,” I type again.

“Don’t they want you to talk?”

“They’d be hypocrites to force me,” I type and then look up at him.

“That is so…” Tomo trails off and stares at the floor. “No wonder you don’t talk.”

I put a hand on his shoulder and squeeze it. He crosses his arm across his chest and rests his hand over mine. He looks up at me and grabs my eyes with his own.  “I’m sorry I got mad at you. You bring down this huge wall you’ve built around yourself to tell me the deepest thing you can tell someone and I…”

“Stop,” I sign. Then, I type, “I know what I’ve been doing is weird and what I said and how is even crazier. But everything I’ve done since you’ve left has been empty. I missed you. Then, I realized I love you. Then, I knew I couldn’t keep my fake silence a secret from you. Like you said, everything you’ve done for me…”

“But why avoid speaking?”

I continue typing, “Everything around me has always gone better if I just didn’t talk, especially at home. Especially at home. Voices make people agitated and this often leads to them fighting. If I don’t talk, then I can’t cause any anger. Life is just happier this way.”

“I wish I hadn’t yelled at you.”

I shrug.

“Don’t do that. Don’t be used to it. What you said and how you said it was… beautiful…”

I look over at him. He stares at his wringing hands. He suddenly turns his face to meet my gaze.

“Say it again! Let’s redo!” he exclaims. Then softly, “Say it again, please.” He leans his forehead against mine and presses his hands against my cheeks on either side.

“I… I…” I start stammering. I can feel his breath on my face. It’s so warm in the cool darkness of the room. “I love you.”

His lips are on mine, sudden and deep. His body forces me back a little, but then I push into his lips. My hands reach and grab his arms. Our tongues, the fine muscles that form articulate individual sounds, are sloppy against each other.

I moan. A new sound. Primal and deep. It comes from somewhere sacred and Tomo responds with his own. Our hands grab at nothing and everything, fumbling for bottoms of shirts and tops of boxers.

Tomo wins the undressing race and I lay before him completely exposed. He scans my body and then leans over me, his knee gently settled between my legs. He can tell that I like this. Leaning close into my face he kisses a trail to my right ear. “If I make you happy enough to break your silence, let me help you find your voice. It’s in there.”

He kisses my neck and strokes it with his hand. I inhale as the hand traces down my chest… my stomach… my… I exhale, moan, and groan.

His hand firmly around me, “There it is.” He whispers. “Now say my name. To-mo.”

“T…To…” I can’t focus on the words.

“That’s it. To-mo. To-mo. To-mo,” he repeats to the rhythm of his hand. “Tomo. Tomo. Tomo.”

I join in the chant, until I become conscious of how loud I have become and bite down on my hand to muffle my voice.

“No!” he pulls my hand away. “Let them hear how happy you finally are and who has made you this happy.”

His hand is now moving faster than I can handle. I grip the sheets. I bite my lip. And then I…”TOMO!”

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