Joyland

Consulate |

Studying the Conversation

by Yolande House

edited by Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

I search your profile
for a translation,

I study the conversation
like a map.

“Overlap,” Ani DiFranco

“You do exactly what your father does,” my stepmom said shortly after I had moved in with her and my dad in Ontario. She leaned into the kitchen counter and gave me a long look.

“What?” I said, looking up from my cereal.

“That. You say ‘What?’ all the time, even though I’m standing right here. I repeat myself. It drove me nuts with your father. I made him test his hearing.”

“Oh? I do that?” I asked, still spooning soggy beige flakes into my mouth, head tilted and blinking.

“And I was right,” she said. “That’s why he has hearing aids now. I’ll make an appointment.”

I nodded, quiet, but my mind was racing. I was 15 and just getting used to this new family dynamic. While dad was away at work, my stepmom was teaching me lessons on how to take phone messages, set the table, and use cutlery during a meal. I welcomed this new information and her guidance in what I now understand to be middle-class manners, which would help me to better blend in as an adult. In the darkened brown townhouse in Calgary I’d just escaped, most meals were leftover pizza or takeout, which I usually ate alone in front of the TV. After mom was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and my baby sister was born, family sit-down meals rarely happened except on holidays, and even then there were never place settings or “dessert forks.”

A few years earlier, when I was still living with mom in Calgary, I came home from school and yelled up to her in her bedroom, where she would often spend most of the day sleeping, “I’m going for a walk with my friends!” She mumbled something that sounded like assent, and I grabbed my acid-washed jean jacket. I got as far as the corner before she came barrelling out of the townhouse.

“Get back in here, now!” she bellowed, red in the face. I gaped at her nightgown. “Didn’t you hear me say to stay home? Are you deaf, just like your father? Get in the house, now!

I glanced at my friend. She frowned, her eyes sad. I bowed my head and marched into brown darkness.

Mom often spoke that way about dad. “I’d say something, and he’d say he didn’t hear. You’re just like your father. He does have a good heart, but he’s a little simple, you know.” Then that crooked smile, green eyes lit up with mischief. “You’re lucky you get your brains from me.” Then, her laugh. I looked at my toes.

Wouldn’t mom laugh now? If she was right all along?

Shortly before I ran away from my mom’s house and moved to my dad’s, he started wearing small, peach-coloured hearing aids. They looked like robotic, alien worms—a solid, thick blob swooping into an abbreviated tail, cut off at the tip, exposing the grey metal of bumpy innards, screws and wires. It sat in his ear blob-side out, a volume dial decorating the edge, convenient for cranking up the volume on a conversation or—as dad often did—adjusting it down with a pained look on his face as one of my young brothers shrieked. When he sat back in his chair, a peaceful, gentle smile on his face, I assumed he must have the dial turned off, transforming the expensive plastic into designer earplugs.

The booth was large and spacious, enclosed with padded walls and a window I faced, the nurse technician nodding at me through the glass. Large black, decidedly uncool headphones hugged my ears.

BEEP!

I raised my right hand, indicating that I heard the noise in my right ear. Earlier, the nurse had instructed me to listen for a short burst of sound on either side, then raise the corresponding arm. The beeps could be high, medium, or low-pitched.

Brrrt.

Sometimes I wasn’t sure, the sound faded and muzzled, but I still raised my hand, tentative. Other times, the silence stretched and the nurse’s brow creased, and my hand shot up at the next hopeful echo.

Weeks later, we received the results. My stepmom nodded in satisfaction as she unfolded a graph of mountainous squiggles.

“She has such good enunciation,” the nurse said when we returned to the hospital. “You’d never know she has a hearing impairment.” Looking at me, she asked, “Did you always speak so clearly?”

I laughed, low and guttural. “No, I had a speech impairment for most of elementary school. I saw a speech therapist until I finally learned how to say the ‘R’ sound.”

The nurse bobbed her head. “I’m not surprised. That’s typical of children with hearing impairments. I’m impressed you even learned how to say the letter ‘R.’ That’s a difficult one. How many years of speech therapy did that take?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Three or four? Maybe second to fifth grade?”

Mom had told the story over and over. My homeroom teacher in second grade said I was “retarded.” Did the teacher use that word, or is that how mom relayed the story to me?

“She’s not retarded!” mom told the teacher, furious that a stranger would call me that, even though she'd called me worse herself. “She just can’t say her ‘R’s. Teach her that, and she’ll be fine.” I can imagine her phoning the school, talking to doctors and specialists, refusing the ADD drugs they recommended, a treatment and diagnosis she knew didn’t fit. Soon a speech therapist began visiting my school, perhaps once a week. It must have been paid for by the government, either through the school system or Social Services, from which we received a monthly check.

I remember how good it felt when I finally was able to say the ‘R’ sound.

“Hey Yolande, say ‘Archie,’” my older cousin said one summer. He enjoyed asking me to say words like “red” and “run”—which sounded more like “wed” and “wun” when I said them—making him bend over, laughing.

“Okay.” I stood up straight and looked him in the eye. He had no idea “Archie” was a favourite device of my therapist or that I’d repeated that word over and over until I’d learned to curl my tongue just right.

I took a deep breath, letting the moment linger. Then:

“Arrr-chee.”

His face fell. “But, but, you used to—.” He gave me a long, puzzled look.

I used to say Ahhh-chee , I think. A small smile teased my lips as I turned and walked away.

The nurse continued to talk. “See the graph here? These lines mean that your hearing is normal until we get to the higher pitches everyone should be able to hear. That’s where you have trouble. You can’t hear those, in either ear. But look!” She pointed to the far right, where the squiggles swooped from a drooping valley up to the mountain ranges of the others. “Even though you can’t hear the highest pitches in the ‘normal’ hearing range, you can hear tones higher than most people! Your ears are actually quite sensitive.”

The shape resembled the audiology tests of my dad and his mom. Later I learned an extreme sensitivity to loud noise was also part of it—not only could I not hear some high pitches, but loud sounds that don’t bother most people could damage my hearing further. For my policeman dad, it was gunshots; for me, it was loud bars, concerts, and iPod use that would further damage my hearing.

I wasn’t sure what to think. I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed. I thought it was cool, actually, to have a hearing aid like my dad.

The nurse recommended I only use one aid. “That way you won’t lose your higher-pitched hearing in the other ear,” she said. “The hearing aid doesn’t go up that far, so wearing two would mean you’d lose it. You don’t want that!”

“No, no, definitely not,” my stepmom agreed. I nodded.

Then we talked cost. The government would kick in about half and my dad’s health policy from work would cover the rest. There were better, more expensive models, but dad and my stepmom explained we would try the cheaper one first and see how that went. That made sense to me.

Within a few weeks, I palmed my own shiny silkworm. I practiced fitting it in my left ear and playing one-tone music with the movement of my hand. It felt like an earplug, though the hard, moulded plastic felt taut instead of a passive, soft plug.

I wore my hearing aid every day, only taking it out to sleep, shower, or swim. At first, it was a comfortable curiosity, but soon my ear became sore after having it in for so many hours at a time. I found myself taking it out and rubbing my ear canal for relief, as my dad often did. I also needed to keep the aid clean. Dad showed me how to use the one-inch, black brush that came with the hard, snap-shut carrying case to dry-scrub wherever earwax might build up. He also showed me the tiny, round batteries it used. Using my fingernail, I popped open the groove on the outside every few months, sliding out the flat, silver puck of battery to exchange it for a new one.

At home, my stepmom seemed satisfied at my diminished number of questions. I told friends it was like I could “turn up the volume” on a nearby conversation or droning teacher. That helped a lot. I kept the setting on medium but could turn it quite high if necessary.

“You could be a spy,” one friend said as we sat in the cafeteria at lunch, her eyes dancing. “Can you hear what they’re saying? At the next table over?”

I cranked the button in my ear and then frowned, concentrating. “A little, yeah. It’s like they’re talking into a microphone. I could listen if I tried.”

“Do it!”

“Alright.” I smiled. The content of the conversation is lost to me now, but I reported back whatever innocent comments I’d heard, and my friends clapped their hands and hooted. I was their secret weapon in the fraught tensions of high school. I gained no forbidden knowledge from my new superpower, but it was nice to understand far-away conversations when before I would have simply smiled at whatever my friends had mysteriously heard.

As time went on, I realized I still misheard many words and sounds. But it was exciting to have my own personal microphone, and it made me popular in class and at parties. Later my friends would be fascinated when I pressed my hand against my ear, resulting in a piercing EEEEEEEEE from the mechanical interference. Something about the electronics made my device sensitive to close contact, and it would shriek like a newborn babe.

In one history class, my classmates went red in the face trying to swallow their giggles. Our teacher, an aging man with sharp eyes, kept pausing his monologue and glaring in the laps of each student, trying to figure out where that awful shrieking sound was coming from. EEEEE! He’d sniff, peer, and then turn and continue writing on the board as quiet descended once again. A few minutes later, I “adjusted my hair.” The teacher pivoted in an instant, looking straight at the source of the sound, right at me. I stared at him, my face blank. Seeing nothing in my hands, he affected a glare and returned to the board. He never did figure out where that sound came from.

My performance was more welcome at parties. That year, my best friend and I joined a dorm party at the nearby university, the only high school kids there. Late in the evening, tipsy and surrounded by people swigging beers in the hallway, I waved my hand over my ear.

“What was that?” one girl asked.

“My ear can whistle,” I said, and repeated the action. Her eyes grew wide. “See?”

“Hey, look! This girl can whistle with her ear!” The drunk girl called more people over. I demonstrated a few more times, the group expanding as my best friend convulsed with silent laughter. Finally, I took out the peach-coloured hearing aid and explained about electronic feedback, but they only looked even more impressed.

By the time I moved halfway across the country to university the next year, I was growing tired of my extra appendage. I found its maintenance cumbersome and no longer had my dad to give me batteries or help me keep it clean. Despite the volume control, I knew my ears still garbled words, which always made me pause, grit my teeth, and do a quick internal calculation: should I say what I heard, which I knew was wrong but may be funny, or ask, “Can you please repeat that?” My dad recommended the nod-and-smile technique, which usually worked. If a friend insisted on a response or seemed annoyed I “forgot” something, I’d tell them I likely hadn’t heard it in the first place. They usually understood.

Other times, I didn’t realize I’d misheard something. In my introduction to reporting class, I received an ‘F’ on a news story because I misspelled the name of a source. The professor double-checked names in the White Pages. My source wasn’t there, but a similar name was.

The stapled sheets marked with a red ‘F’ crinkled as I struggled to breathe slowly. My body was as stiff as my hearing aid in the metallic chair of the computer lab where our journalism class met.

The professor explained we shouldn’t worry about failing a story for a mistake like a misspelled name. The lesson was to figure out what you did wrong and avoid doing it again.

My mistake: I’d interviewed my source on a busy street in downtown Ottawa, using my shoebox-sized tape recorder and microphone. I asked the woman to spell out her name letter by letter, as we were taught.

“I must have misheard one of the letters when I played the tape at home,” I told my professor in her office, hands shaking. “I wear a hearing aid. See? But I still make mistakes like that. I don’t know how to avoid that in the future. What would you suggest?”

The professor took one look at me and then reached for the stapled papers, crossing out the ‘F’ and changing the grade back to the original ‘B-.’

I stared at her, stunned.

“Next time, hand your notebook to the person you interview,” she said, her voice calm and clear. “And get the person to write his or her name down.”

“Oh!” I blinked. Yes, that would do it. “Thank you. Thank you! Thank you so much!”

In my second year, I misplaced my hearing aid in the apartment I shared with two friends. I dislodged couch cushions and jammed my hands into the dusty snake pit of sofa chair crevices, but no luck. I hadn’t “tested” my comprehension without an aid for over four years, and I feared the difficulty I would have. But as I went to classes and socialized with friends, being sure to sit closer to the speaker so I could see their lips, I was surprised.

“My hearing isn’t actually that bad,” I told my roommate. “Or at least, the hearing aid didn’t help that much. I mean, it was nice to turn up the volume—I really miss turning it completely off when I want!—but my ‘mishearing incidents’ are about the same. Remember when I mixed up ‘vicarious’ and ‘bi-curious’ at that pub? I don’t think it actually did much beyond turning the volume up or down.” I shrugged. It was nice not to bother with it anymore, knowing I could manage on my own.

Life without a hearing aid was still full of nodding and smiling and the occasional, “Did you say...” followed by guffaws. I always told people upfront I had a hearing impairment. Now I added that I’d lost my hearing aid, too, so to please speak up, face me, and enunciate well. Often when I told people I didn’t hear what they said, they said they tend to mumble or speak too quickly anyway.

In jobs, my hearing loss wasn’t noticeable until I worked in a library, where most questions came at me in hushed tones or whispers. It was almost a daily occurrence for me to tilt my head and shout, “What? I can’t hear you!” like people on sitcoms while the pre-recorded audience howls with laughter. Or I’d say, “You’re going to have to speak louder than that.” Thankfully, my boss shrugged and spoke up and never made it an issue.

I’d learned to fill in the gaps and take my best guess based on context. My mind was always whirring, studying the conversation like a map with parts torn out, but ones I could figure out. In French, I struggled more. Two summers of immersion in Quebec allowed me to learn the Quebecois accent well, with its guttural pronunciations and a “yes” that sounded suspiciously like a duck’s quack. Job searching in New Brunswick and dealing with the Acadian accent—a whole different group of French Canadians—and I was back to a beginner-level understanding of the language. It was even worse when I heard Parisian French on TV, which sounded more like a bird’s song, tweeting high and low, a lovely melody with no distinctions other than a word or two that stuck out. When I travelled in France, I wondered if my French comprehension had atrophied, but I suspected it was an unfamiliar accent—which even tripped me up in English—that did me in. This was confirmed when I heard Quebecois French on TV and exclaimed in shock, “I understand what they’re saying perfectly!”

About three months into my new hearing-aid-free life, my roommate knocked on my bedroom door.

“Guess what I found?” He held the little worm in his hand, offering it to me.

My eyes widened. “I thought that was gone for good!” I took it and examined it closely. Dusty and a bit less shiny, it otherwise looked the same.

“I don’t even know if I want to wear it now,” I said, shrugging. “It doesn’t actually do that much.”

Trying it out a few times afterward—like in history class when I wanted to turn up the professor’s voice, but still struggled when there was background noise—confirmed volume control was its only real usefulness. After that, it lived its remaining days in its carrying case in a clear glass bottle with my other cute but useless knick-knacks.

Years later, when I met with another audiologist, I was told the cheap aids won’t work for my kind of hearing loss. It’s the expensive ones I need. With no government or insurance coverage for the $3,000 they would cost, I still flit through my days, hoping for the best.

The last time I visited home, my dad was sporting an even smaller, more advanced worm in each ear, barely visible. He still struggles to hear, cranking the speaker phone and reading closed captions. Watching TV with him, I don’t have to strain forward, taking the dialogue I can make out and constructing the rest by context; I can “hear” everything. My ear sits vacant, a respite from its daily studies. With my dad at my side, my face alight in the luminescent glow, I grin.