This story is by Jones MOynihan and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I throw the tennis ball against the ceiling. It falls back to my bed silently. I catch it and throw it back up at the ceiling. Catch. Throw. Catch. Throw. Catch. No sound. It’s the kind of repetition that mirrors my life. Throw. Go to school. Catch. Come home. Until COVID-19. Throw. Then my life turned into a tornado of madness. Catch. Instead of the usual one-two rhythm, I have worried looks and whispers I could not hear if I tried. Books hastily closed with self-help titles. Throw. Computers with job applications on the screen. My parents drinking coffee during the late hours of the night. Catch. Throw. My dad ran a small coffee shop, his dream since he was my age. Catch. He sold it in early April. Throw. My mom works at a hospital. Catch. I haven’t seen her for two days, and she and my dad have been particularly stiff lately. Throw, catch. Probably because of the virus. Throw. Catch.
When I was younger, I wanted to play softball. Since then, I’ve had a small obsession with tennis balls. (I did use softballs, but after my parents noticed the dents in the ceiling…) I researched William Hoy, who could not hear or speak, and he collected more than 2,000 hits and stole 594 bases. Some girls have trouble playing because of their gender or because they were horrible at softball. I was different. My parents took me to a softball game once. Imagine: you arrive at the park and notice fans are cheering as they watch another game, but you don’t hear a thing. The coach gathers the players for his pregame speech, and you see his lips moving, but you can’t hear a word coming out of his mouth, even though it’s broadcasted through a microphone. You act like nothing is wrong because softball is the thing that you love more than anything in the world, and today is the day you take center stage — you get to watch a real game. You watch the field as the players warm up. The umpire yells, “Play ball!” but again you hear nothing, and your father whispers in your ear to tell you it’s game time.
You hear nothing, but you understand what they’re talking about.
That was my dream for an exceptionally long time. My coach told me I couldn’t do it, my teammates told me I couldn’t do it, my teachers told me I couldn’t do it. I didn’t hear them. I was oblivious, as clueless as a mouth moving without sound, and they finally kicked me off the team. I figured out the reason soon after. I sit up from my bed and place the ball in the blue basket on the right side of the bed. I pull a corner of my geometric comforter tighter, then flip off the light and head out of my room.
My dad’s waiting downstairs, his high cheekbones and dark hair the twin to mine. Silver is twined in between the strands, a symbol of his old age. I survey the room, but no Mom.
“Is Mom still at the hospital?”
In sign language, ‘hospital’ is an ‘H’ then draw a cross on your upper arm.
“Yes, she’ll be back tomorrow.”
My dad’s signs are jerky, a sign of frustration. I grab peanut butter, grape jelly, a knife, and bread and quickly construct a sandwich for myself and Dad. He crosses over to me and softly tugs a strand of my crow’s-wing black hair.
“I’m ok, Aspen. Your mom is too.”
I smile, and hand him a sandwich, remembering the tennis ball and wishing I had it now. Throw. Catch. Throw.
He pulls me into a hug. Catch.
“Aspen. I know you miss your school. You OK?”
He signs, stepping back and scanning my face. Throw.
“Love you, Dad.”
I’ve never had trouble with the words. I kiss him on the cheek and head back to my room, where I check my phone and find a text from my friend Rory. She asks for video-chat. I consider ignoring the text, as I don’t admire Rory all that much, but since I can count the number of friends I have on one hand, I create a link. I grab the tennis ball out of its basket, and a few minutes later, her face pops up on my screen. I let her in, and she starts to talk, her mouth moving but creating no sound that I can hear. Throw. Inhale. Her curly, corn-silk hair bobs as she moves around, her apple-green eyes shining bright. Catch. Exhale.
I spell out her name because there’s no sign for ‘Rory’ in the ASL dictionary. Throw.
“Ah, right. Sorry!”
She makes the ‘sorry’ sign wrong, but I don’t say anything. “It’s fine. How are you?”
“Good. Did you hear about Charlie and Serena? Serena got into this huge fight with Charlie …” I let her go on. Throw, catch. Rory is the gossipy type of girl, but my dad was wrong when he said he knew I miss my school. I don’t. Throw. I’m too different from the rest of them. My middle school was not made for deaf people. Catch. I go to special classes, and my whole grade had to learn sign language. Most of them resent me for it. Throw. I crave isolation, I like being alone, away from other organic beings who will never understand what it’s like to be a 14-year-old deaf girl. Catch. People scoff at heroes like Helen Keller, while I have a poster of her on my wall. They just don’t get it. I’m deaf, sure, but I can still talk. Throw. The myth that deaf people can’t is just that- a myth. Catch. Some people told me online that deaf people can hear, and we are all looking for attention. Throw. My answer was something so obscene that I’m not going to repeat it. Catch. Another person said a deaf person will hear you if they want to and if you just shout loud enough, they will hear. Again, MYTH. I throw the tennis ball in the air with more force than necessary.
I finally blink and jump out of my thoughts. The tennis ball lands on the bed, bouncing once. Rory’s gone, and one new message winks on my phone. I open it, and it’s from Rory.
‘Thanks for listening.’
The timestamp shows five minutes ago. This time I leave the message without bothering to reply. I take a big bite of my sandwich.
The next morning, I wake up to my mom in the kitchen. Her blonde hair is limp, and she’s wearing a mask to prevent spreading the virus. She waves to me but stays six feet away. I clench my fists.
“When did you get home?”
She looks at my dad then at my quivering fists.
“Honey, I’m leaving for a while.”
All the self-help books… this couldn’t have been what they meant?
I contribute to an online deaf kids’ forum, and some of their parents left because the pressure of having a deaf kid was too much.
“It’s not you, Aspen. Your mom needs a break from me. Also, we don’t want to risk exposure to the virus.” My dad. I guess… I guess all this time I’ve spent in my room, alone, relishing in the peace of it, they’ve been discussing this. How did I not notice? I’m deaf, not blind, I should’ve noticed… I could’ve prevented this. If I could’ve heard the whispers, if I looked closer at the books, I could’ve tried to help. My dad’s talking to my mom, and I bury my face in my hands. One of them puts a hand on my shoulder, a warm anchor out of this sea of self-blame. A wave of anger rocks me, followed by a tidal wave of heart-breaking sadness.
“Fine. If you want to, I can’t stop you. If you want to divorce, then do it. I’m old enough, and I’ve experienced enough to know that I can’t change your minds. If I’m that much trouble… I’ll just stay in my room.”
I sign, tears streaking down my cheeks like water droplets down a car window, then run to my room, passing rows of pictures of me and my mom. I grab one of us at the county fair, my mom’s arm slung across my dad’s shoulders and an ice-cream cone in my unscarred hands. I stare at it for a second, then let it fall to the ground. The glass shatters and the frame breaks into four pieces. I imagine the ball hitting the glass, falling out of my hands then bouncing down the stairs one at a time. One, two, three, four. My imaginary ball rolls to the ground, hitting the wall.
Yeah, I heard nothing, but this time I didn’t understand. Life throws tennis balls at you, and you’ve just got to catch them and throw them right back, right?