You’ll never be quite what you used to be because you’re always getting older. Everyone is. This was her ex-husband’s mantra, but now, they were not only divorced, but he was dead. Sylvia really didn’t have to believe it anymore.
In her living room, on the antique chest which needed some work though she had it restored already, apparently not well enough, there was a souvenir from a trip she had taken with Thomas in their fifties, several years before the divorce. Ah, Sardinia, the stem of sardonic, he had mused, a few times too many. He wasn’t a linguist, but he admired language. Both weighed heavily on Sylvia as of late, the souvenir and his mantra, not because of his death, but because she was feeling not quite how she used to.
She knew exactly the moment when it had happened. With her new husband, Emil, who was quite well-known in his field, she frequented rehearsals of the opera. Her friends respected her opinion, and often sought it without her having to offer, partially because she was an astute critic, and also because of her experience attending these productions. In largest part, however, it was because she had the ear for it. This particular opera was not well-liked, but Sylvia had fallen in love with it when she’d attended in the past. During this rehearsal, she had been enjoying the orchestral parts when the voices went missing entirely, and though the arias were sparse, she couldn’t account for it.
She had a headache, this was a few days after the opera, a drill coming into the walls of the apartment because someone was remodeling, and the streets were loud, and the people were pushy there, the train, too. Her grandchild, who was in Michigan, she thought about him with longing, the summertime, the over-crowding of geese, the flavor of grapefruit with brown sugar and butter, a serrated spoon first in it, then on her tongue. Where she had and hadn’t been for business or for leisure, in short, everything, became huge or uncomfortable.
Something had gotten into Emil, too, and he was becoming completely unbearable. He complimented her on her cooking, the wine, the way she pronounced the word “camembert” over lunch. Authentic, he said. It’s terrible, she said about something she did in college with a good friend. We were so smart. And Emil agreed, though the contradiction was obvious.
She spent the whole day around their apartment, which Emil had gotten on the East Side when the price was right. She wanted to see an audiologist, but she was particular about doctors, so the research took all afternoon. In between, she moved the silverware organizer, cleaned out the spice rack, and oiled the drawer that creaked. As she waited for her hearing test, the audiologist and Emil had exchanged conversation. Emil had a hearing aid for years, but recently it broke, and he hadn’t found time to fix it. The audiologist asked if Emil wouldn’t mind, retrieved a specialized tool and attended to a wire. This was all before Sylvia had gotten a word in. He was a smart man, the audiologist, that she couldn’t deny, even if his treatment of her had so far been a little callous.
The ideal would be associated dreams, its composer said of Sylvia’s opera, no time, no place, no big scene. In a way, Sylvia appreciated the hearing loss because it coincided with the composer’s intention: it muted the performance in a manner he probably would have appreciated.
Oh, what did she know about him. She sat on the examination table, and her feet didn’t quite reach the ground because she was shrinking. Perhaps in the end she would consist of nothing at all, and wouldn’t that be grand. You’ve got quite lovely ear canals, the audiologist said, as he placed two small blue plastic tubes into them, which would let the fluid drain.
For the next two weeks, Emil administered the drops, a feat with his going vision. Finally, on the day of the hearing test, scheduled after the antibiotics were completed and which would prepare her to be fitted for an aid, she wore her turtleneck, the turquoise one she admired, and which was a decade old but still fit. People have trouble with this, something mechanical becoming a part of them, the audiologist said. It’s OK to be worried. Sylvia nodded. She wasn’t worried; she knew about getting older. Everyone knows, the audiologist said, but it can still be a shock. He led her to the insulated booth and fit her with big medical headphones. She could see him through the window of the booth, with his console and microphone. The quiet was stunning, like an empty field after a big snow in winter.
She sat, progressively quieter beeps altering from one ear to the other, the progressively more difficult to discern words, “omen” and “oatmeal,” which sounded similar enough when whispered.
I went to punk rock shows as a teenager, the audiologist said, perhaps as a means of good-bye or perhaps to comfort Sylvia in the lobby by implying that his hearing, too, one day would go. He reminded Sylvia of her son, in the way kids who attended punk rock shows and have since settled into careers do. When they went to Eugene Onegin, his first exposure, he heard the way she did because he was his mother’s son. She hadn’t seen him since Thomas. It had been a particularly viscous day for a funeral. She tried to convey all this to the audiologist. She went to the opera, she told him.