I’m blind, I can’t see, I never could. But I hear it all. And I could tell someone new had come into the lounge because alongside my favorite attendant’s soft stride sounded a different sort of footfall. A high step, no shuffle. My favorite attendant led that step by the elbow, and you may wonder how I can know that, but I have been here a while and when we get a new one, they always have to be led. Because if they are scared they might need a little shove forward, and if they are too stupid to be scared then they still need someone to show them where to sit or stand and crouch. Also, and perhaps most telling, my favorite attendant always takes you by the elbow. It’s a kindness of his; he understands that we all need to be touched.
I sat by the window, the sun warm on my face, my ears leaned out into the open hole of the lounge. I tried to know where the new one stood, because both sets of footsteps had stopped.
I can tell you that my own arrival here was a long time ago, when I was a child. Then again, maybe I’m wrong about that. One can never be sure. And in any case, clocks and calendars are nothing to me. I prefer to measure time by listening to how my body grows. I pull my hair from its band and hold it flat to my side and I hear how long since it was cut last, and every few years, my belly and hips thunder inside my shift, seams hiss splitting, or I listen for where the edge of the bed touches my legs when I stand flat on the floor; once, long ago, the mattress whispered against the tops of my thighs, but now it scolds the backs of my knees. Once, long ago, I heard my sighing breasts sprout, I heard silk multiplying between my legs, sssssss. But these things have been still for so long. I imagine I must be very old indeed.
A cough. So. The new one stood by the door to the lounge.
Then I heard that nice high step coming forward. Coming, and coming.
The doctors tell me I’m depressed. I’m quite sure I’m not; I’m happy enough. But I listen for signs in others, and I knew that the one coming so rapidly forward was not depressed. Also, it was a man. Young. A light step, quick step, high step. A man. He came on, panting. He was not scared, and not stupid, either. That was what I believed.
O! My face fell to the sun. My ears spun behind my head, and wrapped behind his neck, and his hands came around me and my forgotten breasts breathed as they used to so long ago and my nipples spoke hard.
Angela, said my favorite attendant, very soft.
The other said nothing.
The attendant pressed his hands onto me, then lifted them away. Then smooth rubber soles squished on the floor as he led the other one off. A high step, no shuffle at all.
My favorite attendant fixed it later, but good.
If you want to know what perpetual silence sounds like, believe me it is louder than the most frightening freneticism of the public world. Since boyhood, I have conditioned myself to ignore silence, trained myself to rely on what I see for an understanding of the universe and all that surrounds me within it. Did you know that Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” was composed in a tempest of Natural Visual Inspiration—despite the austere and saintly beauty (so I am told) of the resulting harmonies? Actually, I very much identify with Beethoven. Not that I am all that musical. But Thayer’s Life of Beethoven notes that the Master was ill when he died. As recently as two days ago, I didn’t used to agree, but now I too would like to be ill when I die. If at all possible. This position is new, my previously held concept having led to my relegation to Bedlam.
By now you have surely caught on.
It had nothing to do with my deafness: mark that as Truth. Unlike Beethoven, an aural genius whose end-of-life despair and frustration grew from his tragic loss of hearing, my own pursuit of death was based on a lack of anything better to do. A depression less noble than My Hero’s, if more colorful (red, red, red).
I don’t know why I touched her.
When they brought me into the recreation room, I had no thought of girls. But there she was. Sitting at the window, shining in a pool of white light.
The orderly saw me looking. He smiled his small smile. I shook my arm free of his hold and stood on the balls of my feet, waiting, waiting, while my heart gathered and filled.
The girl’s hair was silver. It fell rushing and weeping down her long back and clung in sections to her white shift; it twined like a hangman’s rope around her shoulders. The white sun sliced through the pane and sparked her hair into fire. And before I knew what I was doing, I crossed the length of the room. To touch her, only to touch her.
Ah, you see, I do know why I did it.
I had to verify that she was real.
In no time at all, I was put back in my room.
The doctor came. I suppose this was because my behavior constituted a new development: Perversion, on top of Suicidal Depression. I made an effort not to read the doctor’s fat lips, swinging my head from side to side. A sudden strong grip made me stop, and I looked into the clean kind blue eyes of the orderly. The doctor sat me down on a chair at the foot of my bed. He gripped my arm and pushed up my sleeve. He gave me a shot. Then he left.
I watched the orderly’s mouth.
I pressed my fingers flat against my chest.
Frederic, what do you need?
I laughed, my ribcage vibrating under my hand.
The orderly’s eyes narrowed. Something quickened behind them. He nodded, and I nodded.
Alone, I sat in the chair. I watched the sky through the window forever shut. The room faced west and the setting sun caught itself behind a building on the other side of the street. Red and gold and white fanned out around the concrete, a halo, a prophecy.
Frederic, what do you need? he said, and I thought of the girl’s hair.
Karen Palmer is the author of the novels All Saints and Border Dogs. She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. Her writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Five Points, and The Manifest-Station, and has been anthologized in The Bedford/St. Martin’s Introduction to Literature. She teaches at UCLA Extension and at Lighthouse Writers in Denver, Colorado. She is currently working on a memoir. Selected by Gabrielle Bellot.
Image © chelsea chen. via Flickr Creative Commons.