Laura Loomis is a social worker in the San Francisco area. "The Sign" is part of a series that will eventually become a novel-in-short-stories. Other pieces from the same series have been published in FLASHQUAKE, ALALIT, and ON THE PREMISES
The Flash Fiction Contest winner, forthcoming in Vol. X., 2010.
by Laura Loomis
I said my name by drawing a “J” with my little finger next to my curls. I knew the other important words, too, my first day of preschool. “Mother” was five fingers spread under my chin; “Father” was the same gesture at my forehead.
I must have understood spoken words by then; my hearing relatives were at the house all the time, and my mother could speak understandably when she needed to. Like any deaf person’s home, ours was anything but quiet: the television was always on, cabinets and doors banged constantly, Mom would stomp the floor to get Dad’s attention with the vibration. But talking was done with the hands.
The teacher had thirty noisier children to entertain. Her only attempt at communicating with my parents was a note suggesting that my hair was too long for a boy. My mother read it with a puzzled squint, then signed to my father, Jesse hair name sign give. Can’t cut. She sent a note back, probably in grammar closer to English than American Sign Language, and the subject was dropped.
The other children didn’t find me interesting; I didn’t understand their games. Their voices all seemed to blend together, an incomprehensible stream of noise. I stayed in silence, where I was comfortable.
There was one boy, green-eyed and curious, who would come sit by me, pushing a toy in my direction. He would show me things, talking the whole time in a voice like a cat purring. Bunny. Car. Ball. Jesse. Gabe. Jesse. Gabe. Finally, I tried to wrap my mouth around the sound. “Gabe.”
And so I started talking his language, and teaching him mine. Gabe took to signing as if he’d always done it. I gave him a name sign: “G” next to his green eyes. Throughout grammar school, all the way to high school, we’d sign behind the teacher’s back. Gabe discovered what any deaf person could tell him: words are clumsy. It’s possible to say more with an eyebrow or a curve of the lip.
I got better at words when I figured out that they didn’t always match faces. You can lie in sign language, just like any other, but you have to be good at it. Face, posture, body language, they all have to match the sign. Talkers are careless about that. When the teacher said she’d been out sick yesterday, the tightening in her knuckles told me she’d been treating herself to a day off of playing drill sergeant to a horde of 12-year-olds.
Gabe thought I was a mind reader until I taught him. It’s just about being observant. Most people would back down when I called them on lying. Not Gabe. Catch him with both hands and his whole head in the cookie jar, and he’d swear he didn’t know anything about any missing cookies.
Like the day in high school when we’d once again planned to meet up after school and go to the arcade. I wasn’t that keen on Pac-man and Frogger, but Gabe liked it so we went once or twice a week. That day, I waited on the steps as usual, but Gabe never showed. I went by the arcade, thinking perhaps he’d gone without me for some reason. Banging pinball machines, blaring music, and the usual boys slipping into the back alley for a smoke. No Gabe.
He caught up to me the next day at recess. “Where were you?” he demanded. “I waited for you for half an hour, man.”
I had a moment of vertigo. Maybe I’d forgotten somehow, or missed him, or something?
No. I was there. I know what I saw, or didn’t see.
It was a girl, of course. Gabe was with Stacia Collins in the back of her parents’ car, finding out how far she’d let him go. When I found out where he’d been, he didn’t exactly act sorry.
“You ditched me for her?”
“Oh, like you wouldn’t dump your best buddy the first time a girl looked past that poodle hair of yours.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“You’d pass up a girl, just for me? Aw, how sweet. You a faggot or something?”
“No-o.” If we’d been signing, maybe I’d have just told the truth. But we were talking, and I was carefully looking past him. Of course I loved Gabe. I loved him so much that it was inconceivable to me that he could fail to love me the same way.
“You sure? Here, lemme check.” He grabbed my collar and pulled me closer, as if to kiss me.
“Stop it!” The other kids were snickering, moving in for a better look.
“No really, it’s okay,” he taunted, giving me a look of mock lust.
“Gabe!” I shoved his chest, hard enough to free myself. “Quit being an asshole!” I walked away, wiping my mouth even though we hadn’t kissed.
After all the guys I’ve kissed since then – the frightened boy in eleventh grade who let me unzip his pants, the one-night lovers who exchanged fake phone numbers, the married linguist who knew the word for kiss in every language – I’ve never quit wondering how that kiss would have felt. If I could have told him yes I’m a faggot, yes I want to kiss you, yes I love you more than that stupid girl ever could, and even though I don’t really know how to kiss yet you could teach me like you taught me to talk.
“Oh, chill. I was just kidding,” Gabe called after me, making it possible for us both to pretend nothing had happened.
I looked over my shoulder, and he was making the sign for I love you. Eternally, stupidly hopeful, I signed it back.